It’s that time of year again, that stretched out time between New Year’s and Lent when coffee cakes marketing themselves as King Cakes re-appear in local bakeries. I stop beside them and look at the garish icings and the brightly colored plastic baby perched amid the ooze and think that this custom is much estranged from the one I was reared on.
Every year, in the weeks leading up to the raucous exuberance of Mardi Gras, bakeries in New Orleans would issue ring-shaped sweet breads with sugar toppings--icing sometimes, but that was a vulgarity by our family’s standards--and embedded in these breads were little pink plastic babies: the baby Jesus, the King of the cake. That was only the most obvious of the symbols. It was a yeast bread, not a cake: it needed to rise, like God rose, like we all rise when we take Him in. It was a bread, and bread is the staff of life. It was sweet, because God in the mouth is a sweetness, an explosion of energy and abundance in a life that can be gray and sad. It was simple and required little ornament, because it needed none; it had a parti-colored robe of colored sugar, because when we robe ourselves in Divinity we shine like shattered light.
The baby, of course, was hidden in the dough. No one who took a slice knew if they would be the ones to receive Him. Everyone ate carefully, because she knew that God was present. There was no hand-holding, no separation of God from the bread into a convenient package taped to the top of the bakery box so you knew where to look. Modern hearts think of a hidden baby and fear to choke. Growing up, we knew better. We were watchful. We were excited. God is here, we thought! We might be the ones! We trod carefully and in hope.
To have the baby was luck. The baby came with responsibilities, though. At school, at workplaces, the King Cake was a communal gift; someone brought the first, but the person to receive the baby was charged with bringing the next. The gift of God’s presence requires giving again. That was part of the ring in the dough: it never ended, a virtuous circle of caring for one another and sharing, a communion outside of Mass, a re-affirmation of duty to one another and joy in the duty.
Commercialized King Cakes, liberated from their original context and scattered around the country into bakeries that know them only as a seasonal food, like heart-shaped cookies or candy canes, feel like sad shadows of the custom that taught me that God is mischief and delight, that He hides in unexpected places and that it’s never for us to know where He might be until we catch Him (or He catches us); that to find Him is to have a responsibility to be worthy of His generosity. “I am here,” He promises, as we approach the fasting times. “And when you least expect it, I will be there.”
This is the playful God, the Aslan, Rumi’s Beloved bound up in sugar and dough. Hiding in metaphor. Inviting us to work at His mysteries… and if we can’t, then to enjoy His sweetness anyway.
That’s the King Cake I grew up with, and if you’d like to make it, I've appended the recipe from the bakery my family and I used to patronize when I was younger at the end of this article.
But remember: strange things happen when you eat God. A friendly warning, from someone who has, and has, and hopes to again.
McKenzie's Style King Cake
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/3 Cup Warm Water
1 Envelope Yeast
1/2 Cup Milk
1 stick butter (4 ounces)
Pinch of Salt
3 Cups Flour
Colored Sugar for Decoration
A Little Milk
Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the 1/3 warm water and stir the yeast in.
Melt the butter with the rest of the sugar and 1/2 cup milk.
Pour into a large bowl and add eggs.
Add yeast-mixture and pinch of salt.
Add flour gradually to make a soft dough.
Knead until smooth and elastic.
Cover bowl with cloth and let dough rise until doubled in bulk.
Shape dough into round ball, place ball onto lightly-buttered cookie sheet; poke a hole in the center and gradually stretch to doughnut shape. Cover and let rise again until doubled in bulk.
Brush top with a little milk and sprinkle on the colored sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.