In the quaint old days, king cake lovers looked upon King’s Day (the Epiphany) as a holiday in itself. King cakes were available for a limited time, until Mardi Gras, and then a year would pass before they could indulge again.
Sometime in the 1980s the Haydel brothers had a brilliant gazillionaire idea. Mail Mardi Gras around the country, year round! One would think that this single act would diffuse the mania for this local treat. And they would be wrong. Soon a lot of people were mailing king cakes year round, which caused locals to say, “I want to eat king cake year round too!” And now we have a king cake On Demand culture. Again, one would think that such a flood of this confection would create an oversaturation and lessen demand. And again, one would be wrong.
If anything, fluffy sweet dough omnipresence seems to ratchet up desire. They’re absolutely everywhere! Everyone seems to have a king cake. Even more impressive, everyone’s king cakes sell out almost as soon as they hit the tables. I went to Maurice’s French Pastries at 10 am a few days ago, thinking about what I would choose. HaHaHaHa. There were three king cakes. The others went the first hour.
Because of sheer numbers, Randazzo’s can make it sometimes till noon. The funniest of all is Don Phuong. My daughter casually mentioned that “Pho Cong has Dong Phuong.” It’s even more of a tongue twister if you say Dong Phuong at Pho Cong. After I giggled a bit about trying to say it, I stopped in my tracks. Pho Cong is a tiny noodle grill in the strip mall at Claiborne Hill where I go to Rouse’s. The mythical Dong Phuong king cakes were right here? I didn’t have to travel to New Orleans East to get them???
I laugh again as I write this, my naivete on full display. First, one has to be a millennial, or know one to even have that information. Instagram is where this type of news tracks. I knew what to expect when I went to Pho Cong. But not really.
The waitress at the counter asked if she could help me. I knew king cakes were long gone but I inquired about them anyway. She stopped and looked at me like I had just stepped off a space ship. Giggling, she said, “We open at 9:30. They’re gone at 9:30. We get deliveries on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”
The following Monday I showed up at 9:15, expecting a line snaking through the parking lot, but there wasn’t one. I immediately attributed it to the cold. When I got nearer the restaurant, a dejected but friendly millennial couple came out and said they were sold out. “What?” I exclaimed. “They haven’t even opened yet!”
He told me the owner was kind enough to open the door and let the king cake fans stay warm. I peeked in and saw every table filled and standing room only of people awaiting the delivery truck. I imagined for a second the stress of it all for the delivery man, and wondered if such disruptive madness could possibly be worth it for the restaurant. Whew!
We would try again on Thursday after carefully rethinking our strategy. Third time was the charm. We scored the mythical king cake on Thursday. I sent Mary Leigh to wait with the passionate crowd, and she returned with one “bland”, as they referred to the plain king cake.
When we decided to do this piece on king cakes, some boundaries had to be drawn. King cakes are absolutely everywhere. Which ones would we sample for inclusion in the piece? Patty and I talked about king cakes in the very beginning, before King Day had even occurred. Patty never met a king cake she didn’t like, and she and her husband Bob get a new one every time they finish the last one. She gets hers at King Cake Hub, a four-year-old operation hatched from an idea as brilliant as Haydel’s way back when. The Hub’s one-stop-shop currently has 15 different king cakes for sale.
After surveying the king cake landscape under Patty’s guidance, I decided that 6 is a good number. King Day is January 6th. That would be the magic number, I really think I could do 60, or even 600, but I am not a fan of king cake, and frankly, didn’t want to eat even six.
But who would they be? Well, I went back to Square One: McKenzie’s is the iconic original, and my curiosity decreed I should start with that one, if for no other reason than to check my nostalgia meter. I remember it as dry and barely sweet (two plusses for me) and dusted in pretty Mardi Gras colors of granulated sugar.
I was pleasantly surprised. It was definitely lighter and fluffier than I remember, with a brioche dough. Everything else was the same.
No piece on king cakes would be legit without at least one oval ring marked with the name Randazzo. At last count, there were four separate king cakes claiming this lofty lineage. There was a divorce somewhere down the line and a splintering of family. Apparently all branches of the tree have some claim to the golden ticket - the king cake recipe.
Luckily, I have a Randazzo outpost nearby. Nonna Randazzo has a cute shop in Covington on 190, and this hybrid restaurant, bakery, and gift shop stack three large folding tables, each of them bearing one Mardi Gras color. The colors aren’t visible till noon, when the stacks of king cakes of every iteration have disappeared.
This traditional king cake from what can only be called the royal family of king cakes, was very different from the McKenzie’s cake. This one was smaller, doughier, chewier, and sweeter than Mckenzie’s The top was covered in a thick sugary white icing, and sprinkled with colorful balls of sugar sprinkles in Mardi Gras colors.
Brennan’s sent their trio of king cakes to the station. The first year they made them was last year, and we went to Brennan’s to pick them up. These are lovely glamorous king cakes that come in a beautiful pink box. They are wide and large and beautiful, but otherwise not all that interesting. This year their Bananas Foster flavor seems to be a hit. It is quite especially pretty.
Another one of the king cakes on the list is included because I stumbled upon it. I dropped into Angelo Brocato’s and noticed little baby king cakes from Caluda’s for $5.95. What a great idea! Individual king cakes! These little ones were a lot like Randazzo’s, doughy and covered in white icing with sprinkles. This was our least favorite, contrary to popular opinion.
We dropped in on a tiny bakery in Covington which is new on the scene but has the stamp of approval of Levee Baking Co. Tournesal is next door to the original Semolina location in a strip mall deep in Covington. This is really gourmet stuff, so it was no surprise to see he had a Galette Des Rois. We got it, since it is the mother pastry from which our cheesy king cake is derived. (Think of our sugary ring as Galette’s stepchild.)
A Galette Des Rois is the original French King Cake. It is layered pastry baked like a cake, with a crust that blends into the dense heavy body of the cake. It’s quite a presentation, but it doesn’t taste like much. It’s not especially sweet, just flaky.
Tournesol also had the ring king. It too was flakier than all others, prettier, and classier. And though it was sweeter than the Galette, it was not as sweet as the ring cakes.
And what of the mythical star of the king cake arena? Dong Phuong, wherever you get it, is indeed a yummy confection. It is the most delicious king cake I have tasted. The cream cheese icing is less sweet and pasty than the others, the dough soft and chewy but not offensively so, and it has a nicely balanced cinnamon component. I actually finished a whole piece of the Dong Phuong king cake, which really speaks to its excellence. It is so far superior to the others I’m not even counting it as one of the six. It’s in a class by itself.
Would I stand in line to get it? I just might, but not really. C’mon, it’s still king cake!