King cake can be a symbol of home. Just ask anyone who grew up with the Carnival treat as a natural part of their own New Orleans culture.
Or maybe ask someone making a home here, blending different cultures along the way.
Consider the tres leches king cake, a new addition in the ever-changing king cake kingdom. It was developed this Carnival season by Ideal Market, the local Latin grocery chain, and is prepared now at all its locations (see idealmarket.com).
It’s a head-turner, sitting there in the glass case of the Ideal panadería, next to pans of flan and cookie-topped concha sweet rolls, in stores where Spanish is often the first language.
“People say visiting our store is like going to a different country, and it’s true that a lot of Latin American people come together here,” said Kiara Trejo, marketing associate for Ideal Market. “But we are also part of New Orleans, and this is part of us showing that.”
This tres leches cake has a downy-soft texture, imbued with the namesake three milks (whole, condensed, evaporated). It’s topped with a thick layer of sticky whipped cream and encased in a coating of purple, green and gold, gleaming like a glossy custom paint job of sugar.
Bite in and the cake instantly drenches your palate with toasty, subtly caramelized, extravagantly creamy flavors.
Carnival purists will point out that this is not king cake, but a Carnival-themed tres leches cake. Fair enough. But set one down on a table, and it vividly proclaims the Mardi Gras spirit.
Ideal also prepares a regular king cake, webbed with icing and tri-color sugar. The plastic baby for this and the tres leches king cake is a little different than the local norm, holding a posture like a mini-Academy Award Oscar statue.
The new tres leches cake evolved gradually since the beginning of this year’s long Carnival season. Each of the brand’s stores tested it out, with bakers adding their own contributions, tweaking the recipe until they agreed on a consensus formula.
“That’s one reason I love this cake so much,” said Trejo. “It came from all of these hard-working people creating it together, showing their innovation.”
Another local Latin grocery, Norma’s Sweets Bakery, introduced its own cross-cultural king cake a few years back.
Now served only at Norma’s Mid-City store, this one starts with a traditional New Orleans king cake and adds seams of cream cheese and guava paste, made in house with guava fruit and sugar. It has a mellow-sweet flavor, with a mild tanginess and tropical brightness.
Norma’s proprietor Jose Castillo said it’s based on a traditional filling for Cuban pastelitos and sweet empanadas.
“It’s a blend of flavors and different things we do in our cultures,” said Castillo, who immigrated to New Orleans from his native Honduras as a child in 1981.
The king cake that New Orleans knows as its own is closely linked to the rosca de reyes (or roscón de reyes), a traditional cake in Spain and many Latin American countries. They resemble king cakes in both form and function, though they are typically plainer than the New Orleans version and their season effectively ends after the Epiphany.
Locally, both Ideal Market and Norma’s prepare rosca de reyes in early January, then switch to their New Orleans king cakes from Twelfth Night through the end of Carnival season.
As they put more Latin flavors into the mix, they are also demonstrating an enduring strength of New Orleans culture: the way it is encompassing within our community, adaptable to change and reliably alluring to those who get a taste.
“When you come from another part of the world, you want to do things that make you feel part of this community,” said Castillo. “New Orleans has so many awesome things, you just want to be part of it.”
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