Mardi Gras is all too often an afterthought in Montana, relegated to lousy bar specials at best. I have reached the state of adulthood where I can't get wasted on a Tuesday night anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm about to ignore such an important holiday. I take Mardi Gras seriously because my mother, a practical, sturdy woman from Iowa, loves everything to do with New Orleans and the holiday for which it's famous. For years, our eastern Montana farmhouse was festooned with feathered masks and voodoo dolls she'd brought back from trips to Louisiana. She loves the fleur-de-lis so much that she ordered one inscribed upon her custom-made funerary urn last year. (Don't worry, she's perfectly healthy—she just likes to plan ahead.) That love of Mardi Gras, combined with our observant Catholic upbringing, means that Fat Tuesday—Feb. 28 this year—registers as a holiday of import in my family.
If I had to pick the optimal entry point into the joys of Mardi Gras, I would suggest a king cake. They can be tough to find in Montana if you're not willing to make them yourself, but Black Cat Bakery makes it a point to offer enormous king cakes available for order in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras. Black Cat's king cake captures the tacky exuberance of Mardi Gras and all of the bizarre traditions that go with it, including the plastic baby thing. (More about that in a minute.) The cake itself, which dates to Roman times, is really a giant, sweet, yeasted roll, studded with roasted apples and spices, surprisingly flaky and delicate in texture. Romans used to bake it to celebrate the winter solstice holiday of Saturnalia. Once the holiday was adopted by Christians, the cake was dubbed "king" cake to honor the Three Kings who visited the baby Jesus with offerings of frankincense, gold and myrrh.
Black Cat co-owner and pastry master Jack Wich oversees the the king cake's crucial final touches. After it's baked and cooled, he carefully inserts a plastic baby into one of the vents cut into the pastry. The baby, according to Mardi Gras tradition, symbolizes Jesus and brings good luck to the person who finds it. Finding the baby also conveys to the finder the title of king of the party. Wich suggests that the baby-finder be put in charge of buying the cake next year. "It's a scam," he says.
Wich disguises the baby's location by slathering the top of the king cake with an abundance of rich, buttery icing. In Louisiana, commercially made king cakes are usually topped with fondant, a moldable, gelatin-based type of frosting. "Our icing isn't really traditional, but I just like it so much better than the traditional icing," Wich says. I'm inclined to agree. Fondant is too sweet and gluey for my taste. The final flourish on a king cake includes gold, purple and green sprinkles representing power, justice and faith, and plastic coins and beads.
To the uninitiated, the resulting delicacy might seem like a mess of clashing colors and inedible doodads. But to fans the cake epitomizes a holiday that has swelled far beyond its religious origins into a riot of color, hedonism and good cheer, all of which we could sorely use up here in the frozen days of late winter. Take it from my mom: You don't have to be Catholic, or Cajun, to share the joy.