New Orleans, LA – France gets credit for bringing the baking arts to Vietnam, her former colony. That set the stage for a tradition that continues today in New Orleans at Vietnamese-run bakeries with their textbook-perfect croissants, almond paste cakes and those famously airy, crisp baguettes used for banh mi sandwiches. But we can thank New Orleans Italians for the latest twist on the venerable old king cake now being churned out in great numbers by one of these bakeries, Hi-Do Bakery in Gretna.
A few years ago, customers began asking bakery founder Ha Do to make his French loaves into animal shapes and other symbols for St. Joseph's altars -- those devotional displays of food constructed each March as part of a religious tradition carried over from Sicily.
The Do family soon decided they could do the same thing with king cakes, and to test demand they picked familiar local seafood shapes. These are special-order items, but customers request them so frequently that Hi-Do now produces a constant flow of king cakes shaped into crabs and crawfish. Cream cheese or fruit fillings channel through their many pastry legs, and customers tell the Do family they usually hide the plastic baby doll in one of the claws. Another offbeat option has proven explosively popular during this epic Saints football season. It's a massive, fleur de lis-shaped king cake, measuring nearly two feet from stem to tip, finished with granulated sugar dyed black and gold.
King cake is so ubiquitous this time of year that a little novelty can make a big impression. While Hi-Do has reconfigured the familiar shape, other creative bakers are making their own distinctive versions of the Carnival classic.
A new rendition from the Uptown shop Sucre glimmers with a neat, tight shell of iridescent frosting. A king cake with goat cheese and apples from the Marigny's Cake Cafe & Bakery might sound a bit far-out, but the unusual filling just gives a mildly sour spurt under its wild splash of dense, smooth frosting. Likewise, the Latin-flavored king cake with guava filling at Norma's Sweet Shop in Kenner lends a tangy snap to the familiar pastry ring.
Back in Gretna at Hi-Do, the actual king cake recipe Ha uses is an emulation of the famous McKenzie's standard, a traditional brioche braid with a simple sugar coating. Ha was a soldier who fled Vietnam after the war, and he learned the baker's trade while working in San Francisco in the 1980s. He moved to Louisiana and opened his first bakery here in 1989. Two years later, he was able to bring his wife and children over from Vietnam. They have remained an integral part of the bakery business, even if their own careers sometimes have led them far from home.
For instance, his 30-year-old daughter Kim Chi Do now lives in North Carolina, where she is a dentist. But each year at carnival time, she and her husband travel back home to Gretna to help her parents keep up with king cake demand. They expect that demand to stay constant with a parade of traditional rings, shellfish shapes and, perhaps now more than ever, that sweet, sweet Saints emblem.
After all, symbols are an inherent part of Mardi Gras, and for many there's no better symbol of New Orleans right now than the black and gold fleur de lis.