I don’t know why I followed the drunk down First Street and around the corner. It’s not something I would normally do, but the more I listened to the man slur and watched him stumble over loose bricks, the more I was certain he was leading me to the right spot.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Patrick asked.
“How could it not be?”
He rolled his eyes, but followed the man just the same. We’d been married long enough for him to know I would not be deterred.
It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We’d been tasting King Cakes since January 6th, the day of the Epiphany and the official start of the carnival, when stores started selling them for the season. Each one was different, some more cinnamon roll-like, some reminiscent of a Danish pastry, but each one decorated with purple, gold, and green to signify justice, faith, and power.
The cakes were quickly becoming my favorite treat with afternoon coffee. I was worried they’d disappear after Mardi Gras, and I’d have to wait until the next year to imbibe again.
We’d met the man while he and his family cheered, hollered, and pleaded with the passing parade floats to be thrown some beads. Their section of the street was cordoned off with a tent, foldout chairs, and plastic tables laden with food and drink. Children were perched in the front row on ladders with special box seats constructed for the occasion. They were serious parade-followers and had been celebrating Mardi Gras in this location every year since the man was a boy.
“The year of Katrina was the best parade,” he’d told me earlier, before he’d consumed so much celebrating. “It wasn’t big, but it had heart. “ He’d lived his whole life in New Orleans and had yet to miss a year of Mardi Gras. If anyone should know where to get the best King Cake than he should.
“My favorite King Cake is Randazz-zz-zz-zzo’s.” The man’s pockmarked cheeks puffed out like a trombone player as he worked the wet words and ran out of air on the z’s. I was pretty sure the name was not that long. “They’s use sprinkles on top.”
It was true. We’d had a Randazzo King Cake last week. The spongy light cake-like bread was covered in super-sweet icing and the colorful sprinkles of the ubiquitous colors. It was the best we’d had so far. But, Randazzos was across the water of Lake Pontchatrain in Slidell, and we were in New Orleans’ Garden District watching one of the many parades of the season. For some reason, it seemed perfectly natural to be following a complete stranger around corners and down the streets lined with the large Southern homes that inspired Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire to the closest next-best-thing to the famed Randazzos.
The man tripped over the roots of a live oak covered in moss and ferns that pushed the bricks of the pavement up and out of place as it grew and fumbled into a woman wearing a Mardi Gras mask of the same green, gold, and purple colors visible on each balcony we passed. The city was in full festive celebration. Bright red alcohol sloshed out of the hurricane glass she carried and stained the woman’s t-shirt with a stick figure on the front and the words “Drunk #2.” It seemed fitting.
“”Scuze me,” he slurred.
I don’t think she even noticed.
“I like this one ‘cause they don’t…they don’t…” He stopped in mid-stride and looked up to the sky above for the word he was searching for. He wrapped his hands over his forearms in a tangle that took all his concentration to unwind. “ You know…” He turned back to me and his glassy eyes focused on my braid. “That!” He reached out and grabbed my hair in his fingers.
“It’s not a braided bread?” I filled in the words for him.
He shook his head and confetti from the parade fell from his scraggly locks. “No, braiding cinnamon into it makes them messy to eat,” he whispered to me like it was an old family secret he passed on.
I looked down at his untucked Saints jersey covered in spilled gumbo, the splatters of muddy ground from the rain the previous day, and the muddle of beads coiled around his neck. He’d been sucking on crawfish all afternoon along with the Local Abita beer and butter glistened his chin. No, we wouldn’t want anything messy.
Yet, still I followed him. Because truthfully, he was right. I, too, had heard how good Sucre’s King Cakes were and when I asked where I could get one to bring home, he offered to take me. It seemed reasonable at the time.
Sucre was bright and trendy, the Starbucks of pastry shops; it took all my willpower to walk away with just one cake and a few macarons to snack on in the car home. Boxes and boxes of the hand-rolled, freshly-baked cakes were stacked along the counter. I was not the only person in search of the Mardi Gras specialty that day.
We retreated from the jam-packed store to the sidewalk to share our King Cake with the man. He was right: it was good. The yeasted dough cake was light and spongy and glazed with a thin silvery metallic icing that faded from green to gold to purple. It wasn’t as sweet as other versions I’d tasted, but sitting there, in the center of New Orleans, in the middle of Mardi Gras, feeling festive and full, it was the best King Cake experience I’d had all season.
½ cup warm water
1 1/2 envelopes dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
5 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ pound butter, softened
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cream cheese
1 cup strawberry jam
5 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
5 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Purple, green and gold sugar crystals
In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine warm water, yeast, sugar and eggs. Let stand for 10 minutes to start the yeast bubbling. Add the flour, sugar, butter and sea salt and knead with a dough hook on medium speed for 10 minutes until a soft, smooth dough is formed.
Cover and let rise for 2 hours.
Punch down dough and divide in half. Place one portion on a lightly floured surface and roll to a 28 X 10-inch rectangle.
Spread half the cream cheese on the dough leaving a 1-inch seam at the top long end of the dough. Add half the strawberry jam to the top of that.
Roll dough in a jellyroll toward the seam starting with the long end. Place dough, seam down, on a baking sheet and join the ends to form a circle. Pinch the ends together to seal. Repeat with remaining dough.
Cover and let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake for 30 minutes. Cool completely.
Meanwhile, mix together the frosting ingredients. Spread evenly on both rings and sprinkle the colored sugar over the top in an even color pattern.
Slice and serve immediately.