You can celebrate Mardi Gras in a lot of places, including right here in the ATL, but for many of us, when we think “Mardi Gras” we think “New Orleans.” (Sorry, Mobile, home of the first North American Mardi Gras celebration in 1703.)
And since Mardi Gras offers us the the last night to indulge before the fasting of Lent, when we think “Mardi Gras,” we think “sweet rich treats” like King Cake and beignets and pralines.
Pastry chef Veronica Mathieu of Serpas Restaurant just off the Beltline in the Old Fourth Ward grew up in New Orleans. Her grandmother lived on a parade route, and the family would gather on her porch to watch the floats go by. Growing up, she says her mom wasn’t into sweets, so maybe it’s ironic (or poetic justice) that she grew up to be a pastry chef.
“I always liked to cook and, when I went to culinary school, found I liked the pastry work. So it was really as an adult that my love of King Cake and pralines bloomed.”
Mathieu makes beignets all year round since Serpas has them on the menu every day. In Mardi Gras season, she breaks out the King Cake recipe and starts making pralines.
“At home we had McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes, which aren’t open anymore. I liked their King Cake because it was like a cinnamon roll. My recipe evolved from that memory and a lot of testing.”
Her praline recipe is based on one she found in a magazine. “I think it was Southern Living. It was from a praline company that shipped out of South Carolina. I looked at what he was doing, looked at other folks’ recipes and experimented.”
Basic praline recipe perfected, she now dreams up new flavors like chocolate-peanut butter or sweet potato. “A recipe is like a starting point. You should add your own flavor to it. That’s what’s fun.”
New Orleans native Melissa Rathbun of Rathbun’s, Kevin Rathbun Steak , Krog Bar and KR Steakbar, says King Cakes were the high point of the Mardi Gras season for her. “We would start with jambalaya, gumbo and mufflettas, all those delicious salty and savory things, and then work our way up to the King Cake. Or fleur de lis cookies. Or Doberge Cake.”
Rathbun is describing a family that enjoyed its sweets.
It was also a family that bought its King Cake. “I didn’t come from a family of bakers. We got ours from Randazzo Bakery. I’m a fan of the traditional King Cake. Plain. No filling. Not stuffed with whipped whatever. I’ve never attempted to make one, but our executive pastry chef, Paul Westin, has a recipe that’s very traditional and delicious.”
She’s found that King Cakes have become more of a year round offering for New Orleans bakeries, with versions decorated in orange and black for Halloween or pastels for Easter, but to her taste it’s something you should reserve for Mardi Gras season.
“Two weeks before Mardi Gras day, that’s when it starts. Parades and parties, a real carnival celebration. People show up for Sunday dinner and they bring a King Cake, usually from a bakery. The person who gets the slice with the baby in it has to host the next party.”
The Rathbun’s restaurants have King Cake on the menu now through Mardi Gras.
Louisiana native Nick Melvin, executive chef and partner of Venkman’s and the man behind Doux South Pickles, is all about his mom’s beignets. “My mom’s beignets are actually the thing I would ask her to make for my birthday breakfast. My dad would want a Dutch baby. My mom wanted banana shortcake. I wanted her beignets.”
Melvin acknowledges some will find Anne Melvin’s beignet recipe to be heresy.
But he loves this recipe, which works perfectly for both savory and sweet variations. “We had a small house, not a big kitchen, and she made these little drop beignets that were delicious. After all, it’s fried dough. You can’t go wrong with fried dough and sugar.”
His mom was also willing to let her young son experiment. “I was raised in front of the cooking shows on PBS – Graham Kerr, Julia Child, Justin Wilson. I was eight years old and I would jot down my ideas of what a recipe should be and ask to cook them. One day it was a crown rib roast, and I wanted those ‘little white hats’ for the bones. It didn’t always go as planned, but she was always willing to let me try.”
A favorite Mardi Gras meal involved his mom’s chicken andouille gumbo and an Italian salad that was a take-off on a muffletta. “We had a really good Italian grocer and would get these cold cuts, hard cheese, soft cheese and mix it all with oil and vinegar. It was amazing to eat with crusty bread and gumbo.”
And those beignets. “We might cook in the morning and make enough food for all day. Those beignets are best right out of the fryer, but you can make them an hour in advance and put them in a low oven, 150 to 200 degrees, and they can sit there until you’re ready to serve. Dust them with a little powdered sugar and send them out. You don’t want to be standing in the kitchen frying when you have guests.”
Those beignets are on the menu at Venkman’s right now.
Enjoy these three traditional Mardi Gras favorites while the season is at hand. Learn how to make the beignets in our step-by-step video with Venkman’s chef Nick Melvin. Watch online at myajc.com/food.
Rathbun’s King Cake
Paul Westin of the Rathbun’s restaurant group developed this recipe for a rich, but not too sweet pastry. No fancy fillings here. Just a tender brioche-type dough swirled with cinnamon sugar. Because of the amount of yeast in the recipe, the dough rises quickly and you can go from a batch of ingredients to a finished King Cake in about three hours. That’s a good thing.
Like any pastry chef worth his sparkling sugar, Westin reminds you that “warm” for the water means it should be between 80 and 90 degrees, and “warm” for the milk means between 90 and 100 degrees. Much warmer and you risk killing off the yeast, and then where would you be?
1/2 cup warm water
4 1/2 teaspoons or two (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk, divided
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 egg yolks
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, or as needed
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup buttermilk, or as needed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Splash of vanilla extract
To decorate cake: yellow, green and purple sprinkles, a small toy baby or lima bean to hide inside
In a measuring cup, combine water and yeast and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes or until yeast has dissolved and becomes foamy.
In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup milk, lemon zest and nutmeg. Gently heat to 100 degrees. Remove from heat and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine yeast mixture, milk mixture, 1/2 cup sugar, egg yolks and salt. Add 3 cups flour and beat on low speed until the dough comes together and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, about 6 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup flour if the dough is too sticky. Keeping the mixer on low, slowly feed in pieces of the softened butter. Continue until all of the butter is incorporated and the dough becomes shiny and smooth. Turn the dough out into a greased bowl. Cover and let it sit at room temp until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Make cinnamon sugar: While dough is rising, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar with cinnamon. Set aside.
Make egg wash: Stir together egg and remaining 2 tablespoons milk. Set aside.
Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and roll to a rectangle, roughly 20 inches wide and 12 inches tall. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar over all the rectangle except a 1-inch border at the bottom. Roll the dough into a log, beginning at the sugared side and ending with the unsugared strip. Pinch the log closed and move it to a rimmed baking sheet. Gently form the dough into an oval, pinching ends together to seal. Brush with egg wash and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise one hour or until doubled in bulk.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Set rack in the middle of oven.
When cake has risen, bake 12 minutes, then rotate pan and bake 10 minutes more or until dough is golden brown.
While cake is baking, make glaze. In a medium bowl, combine powdered sugar, buttermilk, lemon juice, vanilla extract and salt. Add a few more drops of buttermilk if needed to make a pourable glaze.
When cake is done, remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack. Once the cake has cooled completely, insert baby or lima bean into cake. Pour the glaze over cake and while it is still sticky, add the colored sprinkles. Transfer to a serving plate. Serves: 16
Per serving: 297 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 5 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 56 milligrams cholesterol, 193 milligrams sodium.
Pralines scare cooks who are afraid they’ll end up with something grainy and pretty much inedible. But Serpas’ pastry chef Veronica Matthew says that with a little practice, you’ll find they’re not intimidating at all. “You have to use a candy thermometer and cook the sugar, butter and milk to a certain temperature. If you don’t cook it enough, it doesn’t set up. But if you cook it too long, the mixture will solidify before you get the chance to scoop it into individual pralines and you’ll end up with a solid lump of praline in your pot. It’s just a matter of timing.”
We cooked our praline mixture in a medium enameled cast iron saucepan. Once it reached 240 degrees, we took it off the burner, but the residual heat from the pan meant the mixture stayed warm enough to keep from making that big solid mess. We just kept stirring until the mixture was cool enough to start holding its shape and then quickly used a tablespoon measure to dollop out individual candies. Perfect.
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup of evaporated milk or half-and-half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Lay waxed or parchment paper on a baking sheet and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
In a medium heavy saucepan, combine granulated sugar, brown sugar, milk or half-and-half and butter. Attach candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture reaches 240 degrees. Remove from heat and add pecans, vanilla and salt. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture begins to thicken. Immediately drop mixture by heaping tablespoonfuls onto prepared paper. Work very quickly. Let stand to cool and firm up. Makes: 30 2-inch pralines.
Per praline: 101 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 1 gram protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium.
Mamma Melvin’s Beignets
If you think a beignet has to be fried yeast dough, then read no further. But if you want a recipe that’s just about foolproof, goes together quickly and makes little puffs of deliciousness that are pretty irresistible, then give this one a try. It’s the recipe Venkman’s executive chef Nick Melvin inherited from his mom and his favorite birthday breakfast ever.
While fried dough is generally best right out of the fryer, you can make this dough ahead of time and refrigerate it for up to three hours before cooking. And then hold the beignets in a warm oven for an hour or so before serving. Gild the lily by coating the beignets in cinnamon-sugar and then adding a sprinkle of powdered sugar.
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg yolk
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar, to sprinkle on beignets
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg.
In a small bowl, whisk together egg and egg yolk. Add buttermilk and melted butter, and whisk well.
Pour the egg mixture ingredients into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together and only small lumps remain. Do not beat the batter until smooth.
In a shallow bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a Dutch oven, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Place a few layers of paper towels on a baking sheet and top it with a wire cooling rack.
Using a tablespoon measure, drop balls of dough into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the balls for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side, turning them gently with a wire mesh spoon.
Drain the drops on the cooling rack, blotting them gently with additional paper towels. Fry the remaining dough in the same manner. Roll the drops in the cinnamon sugar, dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately. Makes: 30
Per drop: 120 calories (percent of calories from fat, 31), 2 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 18 milligrams cholesterol, 93 milligrams sodium.