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Sherrie Norris Lovin’ Spoonful Cooking Column: Bring Out the Breads and the Beads, Mardi Gras is Just Days Away!

By Sherrie Norris

Mardi Gras is just a few days away. It’s a celebration that receives a lot of attention the world over; however, it is likely no more festive anywhere than in New Orleans.

While many of us might not have experienced it in person, there is no shortage of live coverage on TV. It’s always exciting, and probably safer, to see the action from the comforts of home.

Also referred to as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday— Mardi Gras is a “floating observance,” and falls on Tuesday, March 1, this year. It is always on the calendar the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian observance of Lent.

The French term, Mardi Gras, means “Fat Tuesday” and hails from the tradition of using up the eggs, milk, and fat in one’s pantry, because those items were forbidden during the 40-day Lenten fast, which begins the next day (Ash Wednesday) and ends on Holy Thursday (three days before Easter Sunday).
There is so much to read about Mardi Gras, its origin and related celebrations, and it’s all very interesting.

And, of course, a big part of it all is eating an abundance of delicious fried food—especially donuts and Shrove Tuesday Pancakes, beignets and much more.

For several years, my husband and I joined the welcoming congregation at Bethany Lutheran Church for their Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Supper. And what a great time it was. Of course, COVID-19 took a whack at that observance, but we will always hold dear the good fellowship and wonderful pancakes that the church members prepared and served us, with all the trimmings.

So, let’s take a look at a couple items closely related to the upcoming festive occasion. Most of us likely won’t be in the midst of huge celebrations — with parades, colorful floats, masked balls, cakes, drinks and more here in the High Country — but we can throw a little celebration of our own as we prepare our hearts for a more sincere observance of the days to come.

The King Cake, which is usually eaten only during Mardi Gras, is really just a cross between a French pastry and a coffee cake, topped with icing and sugar in the Mardi Gras colors. A small plastic baby (representing Jesus) is hidden in the cake, and whoever gets the piece containing the baby is expected to provide the king cake for the next gathering.

Following is a recipe for the cake, and as simple of one as I can find.
It does require time and a bit of patience. And, for best results, it has been suggested to mix in bowl of stand mixer with paddle attachment, but regular mixer/bowl will suffice, and kneading done by hand.

King Cake
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 pkg. (2 ¼ teaspoons) Rapid Rise yeast
1 cup milk
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened, cut into 12 pieces

Cinnamon Filling
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbsp. milk
½ tsp. vanilla
Dark green, purple, and yellow or gold sugars, if desired
Miniature plastic baby, if desired

Mix 2 1/2 cups flour and yeast in mixing bowl of stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, on low for about 30 seconds.

Heat milk, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and milk is between 120°F to 130°F.

With mixer on low, pour in liquids and mix until incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms. Clean off paddle and switch to dough hook. Mix in the remaining 1 cup flour a little at a time, adding more or less flour as needed to make a soft dough. Add the softened butter, a piece at a time, kneading until each piece of butter is absorbed.

Knead for 8 minutes on low. The dough should completely clear the sides of the bowl. If it is too sticky, add additional flour 1 Tbsp. at a time, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more flour is needed.
If dough seems too dry, spritz with water from a spray bottle a couple of times, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more water is needed. Every 2 minutes, stop the mixer, scrape dough from hook, and then continue kneading.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead a few times by hand until smooth and elastic. Form dough into a ball. Place dough into a greased bowl. Turn once so greased surface is on top. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

While dough is chilling, make cinnamon filling(see below). In small bowl, combine brown sugar and ground cinnamon. Combine butter with cinnamon mixture and mix well.

Roll chilled dough into a 10 x 20-inch rectangle. Spread filling on half of the long side of dough. Fold dough in half, covering the filling. Pat dough down firmly so dough will stick together. Cut dough into three long strips. Press tops of the strips together and braid strips. Press ends together at the bottom. Gently stretch braid so that it measures 20 inches again. Shape into a circle/oval and press edges together.

Transfer the ring to a parchment lined or greased baking sheet. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled, about 1 hour. While dough is rising, preheat oven to 350°.

Bake cake until golden brown, 20 – 35 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes on baking sheet; place on a cooling rack to cool completely before icing.

To hide baby in the cake, if desired, make a small slit in the bottom of cake and put miniature plastic baby in after the cake has cooled.

In a small bowl, mix powdered sugar, milk and vanilla until smooth (add additional milk if mixture is too thick or powdered sugar if too thin).

Spoon icing over cake. Immediately sprinkle on colored sugar, alternating between the three colors.

Easy New Orleans-Style Beignets
Time consuming, but worth the effort
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. active dry yeast
1 large egg, beaten
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, very soft
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for kneading and cutting
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 qt. peanut or vegetable oil, plus more for the bowl
1 cup powdered sugar

Warm the water and milk in a large microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 1 ½ minutes on full power, or in a small saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute. The mixture should be warm but cooler than 100°F.

Proof the yeast in the warm milk mixture for 15 minutes. Whisk the sugar into milk mixture, then sprinkle with yeast and set aside for 15 minutes until the yeast has become foamy.

Beat in egg, butter, and flour. Add the egg, salt, butter, and 2 cups of the flour to the milk mixture. Beat with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula until mixture is thick, but smooth.

Add remaining 1 ½ cups flour; beat again until just combined into a thick batter-like consistency that resembles drop biscuits rather than bread dough.

Cover a work surface with flour; knead the dough. Dust a work surface with about ¼ cup more flour and dump the dough onto it. Gently fold the dough over 3 or 4 times (the dough will be sticky and a little loose). Gently shape dough into a circle; place in a well-oiled bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Let dough rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours or overnight. Set bowl in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, 1 ½ to 2 hours. Or, you can cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise overnight in the refrigerator for 8-10 hours.

Heat oil in a large covered pot to 370°F. Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. If the dough is in the refrigerator, pull it out just before you heat the oil to give it 20- 25 minutes. Roll out and cut the dough. While the oil is heating, dust a work surface with about ¼ cup of flour and dump the dough onto it. Roll the dough out to a 17×11-inch rectangle that is about ¼ -inch thick. Use a pizza cutter or sharp knife to cut dough into 20 to 22 (about 2-inch square) pieces. (Don’t worry if some of the corner pieces are more triangular, and don’t reroll the dough.)

Gently add 3 or 4 beignets to the oil at a time with hands or tongs.

Immediately use a large heatproof spoon to ladle the hot oil over the pieces. Fry each side until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer fried beignets to baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough.
Just before serving, and while still warm, use a large fine-mesh strainer to generously dust the beignets with powdered sugar.

Note: Beignets are best eaten fresh, but the dough can be made the night before and proofed in the refrigerator overnight.