As we face the slow march through the end of winter or, perhaps more appropriately, the long stretch of Lent, we need something substantial to fortify us until the dawning of spring (or the arrival of Easter). Although the religious origins of Mardi Gras – or Shrove Tuesday, as it is known to the more devout among us – are often overlooked in our progressive enclave, the urge to indulge ahead of the privations of Lent can still be understood and appreciated by those who live for good food and general merriment. Mardi Gras is related to the raucous festivities of Carnival: a final send-off to the more pleasurable and potentially sinful pursuits before a time of denial and repentance.
Popular conception of the holiday in the US is based almost entirely on the celebration in New Orleans, which grew out of traditions brought to the region by French explorers. In the 18th century, with the foundation of the city of New Orleans and the influx of French-Catholic colonists, societies formed that promoted the celebration of the holiday with parades and masked balls. Now the name is synonymous with binge drinking and beignet eating, late night revelry, and questionably-attained beads. Still, an air of mystical intrigue and charm remains.
In keeping with tradition, we embraced the idea of a true New Orleanian feast replete with Southern staples (as well as an error in judgement that resulted in the lurid red terror below). A Creole Shrimp recipe from Brown Sugar Kitchen – a favorite of ours for its wildly indulgent lunch options – accompanied by Chef Tanya Holland’s quick Cheesy Grits seemed the perfect way to celebrate. A patient chef bought shrimp from the meat counter at Berkeley Bowl and carefully peeled and deveined the entire pound and a half. Her heroic efforts produced a fresh, supremely savory result that married well with the beer-based sauce. Sweet peppers and a slightly unexpected addition of green onions finished off an impeccable recipe. While this dish would normally be accompanied by a cold Abita from Lousiana’s move beloved craft brewery, a serious restocking issue at our local BevMo forced us instead down a dark path. On a whim we seized a packet of Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix, thinking that the kitschiness would compensate for any lack of true appeal. We were wrong. The shrimp and grits – so cheesy! so creamy! – were as flavorful and delightful as the drinks were KoolAid-sour and disappointing. A first sip left me speechless for half a minute before the rum kicked in and I could join my companions in a vigorous panning of the concoction.
Overall however, the meal was outstanding. The cherry on top – or rather, considering the cherry was at the bottom of a glass of Pat O’Brien’s crime against nature, the icing on the cake – was our rich (and vivid) King Cake. Another tradition of the season, King Cake was originally associated with the celebration of Epiphany and the beginning of Carnival. Now, of course, we eat it for breakfast on the day after Mardi Gras so the custom is very nearly lost on us. After preparing a dough with a sour cream-and-butter base and letting it rise into a gratifying yeast-scented cloud, we rolled it out and covered it with an obscene quantity of butter, sugar, and cinnamon. The dough was then rolled back up and baked until firm and golden-brown on top. Luckily, the icing must be applied while the cake is still warm, so the more impatient among us didn’t have to wait through an excruciating cooling step before getting down to the business of slicing through the cinnamon-swirled and still-steaming interior.
Our thanks to Brown Sugar Kitchen and Southern Living for the memories which will now get us through the cold, rainy days ahead.
Creole Shrimp (Serves 4) – Recipe from Brown Sugar Kitchen
- 3 Tbsp butter, divided
- 6 Tbsp green onion, thinly sliced, divided
- 3 tsp minced garlic, divided
- 1 (12oz) bottle Hefeweizen (wheat beer) – we used Sierra Nevada
- 3/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp herbes de provence
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/8 tsp paprika
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup green bell pepper, cored & diced
- 1/4 cup red bell pepper, cored and diced
- 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled & deveined
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 5 ounces baby spinach
- 2 tsp lemon juice
Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a small saucepan. Add 2 Tbsp green onion and 1 tsp garlic and cook over low heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add beer and Worcestershire sauce and increase heat to medium-high. Boil to reduce sauce to 1 cup, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small bowl, combine cumin, herbes de Provence, salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, and ground black pepper. Set aside.
In a large saute pan, heat oil. Add remaining 4 Tbsp green onion, remaining 2 tsp garlic, and green and red bell pepper. Sprinkle with spice mixture and saute until vegetables have softened, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp and sear on one side, about 1 minute. Flip and add sauce, remaining 2 Tbsp butter, and cream and bring to a simmer. When shrimp are pink on both sides, about 2 minutes, add spinach a handful at a time stirring to coat with sauce. When spinach has wilted, remove pan from heat, stir in lemon juice, and serve immediately over cheddar grits.
- 3/4 cup quick-cooking grits
- 2 Tbps heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 3/4 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- pinch of white pepper
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Whisk in grits, lower heat to simmer, and cover stirring occasionally, 4 to 6 minutes or until thickened. Stir in cream, butter, cheese, salt, and pepper. Serve immediately with Creole Shrimp.
Mardi Gras King Cake (makes 2 cakes)– Recipe from Southern Living
- 1 (16oz) container of sour cream
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 (1/4 oz) envelopes active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water (100-110 degrees)
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour (or All Purpose Flour)
- 1/3 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- purple, green, and gold sugar sprinkles & a plastic baby
Cook first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until better melts. Set aside and cool mixture to 100-110 degrees. Stir together yeast, 1/2 cup warm water, and 1 Tbsp sugar in a 1 cup glass measuring cup and let sit for 5 minutes. Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, and 2 cups flour at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until smooth. Reduce speed to low and gradually add enough remaining flour (4-4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a well greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let ride in a warm place, free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough has doubled in size.
Punch down dough, and divide in half. roll each portion into a 22×12 inch rectangle. Spread 1/3 cup softened butter evenly between each rectangle leaving a 1 inch border.Stir together 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle evenly over butter. Roll each dough rectangle, jelly roll fashion, starting at one long side.Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form and oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with second roll. cover and let rise 20-30 minutes .
Bake at 375 degrees for 14-16 minutes or until golden. Slightly cool cakes on wire racks (about 10 minutes). Drizzle Creamy Glaze evenly over warm cakes, sprinkle with colored sugars, insert plastic baby from the bottom of cake.
King Cake Creamy Glaze
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 2 Tbsp butter, melted
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 to 4 Tbsp milk
Stir together first four ingredients. Stir in 2 tablespoons milk, adding additional milk, 1 tsp at a time, until it reaches spreading consistency.
Spread on cake and add sprinkles. Serve and Enjoy!