In New Orleans, as soon as Mardi Gras season arrives with the celebration of Three Kings' Day on January 6, king cakes are everywhere. You can't go into an office break room, a grocery store, or a friend's kitchen without encountering the round, sweet bread, often stuffed full of cream cheese filling and iced in green, purple, and gold. The traditional king cake is a beloved favorite, but for those who want to break out of the mold, Cake Café offers a modern spin: a goat cheese and apple cake that has become a signature for the bakery and a tradition in its own right.
"I think a king cake is a real calling card for a bakery," says head baker and owner Steve Himlefarb. When he reopened Cake Café in a new space after Hurricane Katrina, he began searching for a distinctive recipe that would set the new restaurant apart.
"I wanted to use fresh fruit, not these fake fillings," he recalls. "I had a sweet dough recipe that I had been using for years, and at the time I was working with a pear and goat cheese Danish, or something like that. I realized, 'Oh my gosh, I'm already doing it! It just kind of clicked.'"
The cake was an instant hit, and it has proven its staying power over the years. Himlefarb and his team will produce up to 100 cakes each day as Mardi Gras Day approaches—no small feat in their cramped quarters. (The goat cheese and apple tends to sell out fast, so if you're hoping to snag one, it's best to call ahead the day before.)
Himlefarb is gratified by the reaction, and by the growth of high-quality king cakes throughout New Orleans. "Before the storm, king cakes were falling into this generic, store-bought pastry," he says. "Now, more artisan bakers are doing them, and it's really become a celebration of Mardi Gras and a signature of the city."
"It should be over-the-top," he adds. "This is not the time for restraint."
Check out the slideshow to see how Himlefarb and his team put together this modern classic.
Cake Café & Bakery 2440 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70117 (map) (504) 943-0010;www.nolacakes.com
About the author: A native Texan, Abby McCartney now lives, works, and eats in New Orleans, where she teaches high school math by day and explores the city's rich food culture by night. She makes a mean chocolate chip pecan pie, loves avocado on everything, and is learning to like yogurt.