Last night was Fat Tuesday, the indulgent festival many associate with the craziness of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s about parades, flying beads, moon pies, and showing flesh in public. One of the symbols of Mardi Gras is the King Cake, a braided sweet yeast cake, glazed with icing in the purple, gold, and green colors of Mardi Gras. In the coastal south from Alabama to New Orleans, this cake is served from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday. With a hidden plastic baby Jesus inside, the person who finds it in their piece of cake without choking must buy the next cake, the process continuing until Ash Wednesday, when all indulgences are given up for Lent.
The Germanic Catholic countries celebrate their own version of Mardi Gras, called Fasching or Fastnacht. It’s as indulgent as the French Mardi Gras, and there is a King Cake, called Dreikoenigskuchen, associated too, but it’s eaten a little bit earlier on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Fasching is celebrated from northern Germany to southern Bavaria. In Bavaria, the celebration is accented by men parading noisily through the streets in elaborately and grotesquely carved masks.
Cincinnati’s German immigrants celebrated Fasching prolifically, and each organization hosted their own Fasching Maskenball, where a King and Queen were usually crowned and elaborate costumes were worn. The Hofbrauhaus in Newport, Kentucky, hosts the German American Citizens League of Cincinnati’s annual Fastnacht celebration. Last night’s celebration there raised a record-breaking purse for the organization.
Three Kings Day celebrates Die Heilige Drei Konige, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, who visited the baby Jesus in the Nativity. In Germany the Dreikoenigskuchen looks a bit different than the New Orleans version. Rather than a braided sweet roll, the Germanic version has several individual sweet rolls surrounding a larger roll in the center.
Traditionally a Dreikoenigskuchen is divided by the number of people present plus one, with the extra piece left for those who can’t be present. In older times this center piece was then given to a person in need, either someone in the street outside or who had knocked on the door of the home.
The cake may be flavored with raisin, orange zest, or dried cherries, but it’s not bathed in dense icing like the New Orleans version. In Lichtenstein it might be lightly glazed with a lemon glaze. In Switzerland, it may only be topped with almond slices. Hidden inside can be a dried bean, a plastic Christkindl or Christ Child, an almond, or a tiny plastic King.
In Germany, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, when a kid finds the hidden treasure inside the cake, they are crowned with the golden or silver cardboard foil crown on top of the cake, and become King or Queen for a day, often being excused from doing chores. As much as I love the New Orleans version of the King Cake, I’d love to see any of the local German bakeries make the traditional German Dreikoenigskuchen.