Over the years, the Mardi Gras has become synonymous with New Orleans, that most French of America’s cities. But the holiday, which started this year on Jan. 12 and ends on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, is also a state of mind. Mardi Gras enthusiasts don’t have to travel south, because some of the traditions and foods of New Orleans can be found along Lake Michigan’s shore.
“We offer a lot of New Orleans inspired cuisine,” said Lin Whitton of Season’s Restaurant in Merrillville. The restaurant’s menu features Cajun and Southern dishes such as Po' Boy sandwiches filled with a choice of blackened, fried or grilled shrimp or catfish, fried green tomatoes and gumbo.
Seasons will be kicking it up a notch during their holiday celebrations on the weekend of Feb. 8 and 9, and also for lunch and dinner on Feb. 12, the official start of Mardi Gras.
“We’re going to be offering Mardi Gras Sampler plates, like one with our side dishes like red beans and rice, Hoppin’ John, candied yams and Creole baked beans as well as New Orleans pepper jack grits,” said Whitton. “And there will also be Cajun specials like fried oyster Po’Boys, Creole shrimp, crawfish étouffée, live entertainment and complimentary beads.”
The distributing and wearing of colorful strands of beads in traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (for justice), green (for faith) and gold (for power) dates back to the 1800s and continues to this day. The beads are thrown during the seemingly never ending stream of floats during the parades that take place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
These colors can also be found in the glittering sugar sprinkles used as decoration for King Cake, the number one dessert during Mardi Gras, typically prepared between the Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday. Made of rich yeast dough that has to rise several times like bread, the cake is shaped into a ring.
Typically a small plastic baby is placed under one of the pieces and whoever gets the baby not only becomes king or queen for the night but is expected to host next year’s Mardi Gras party. Other objects also may be hidden in the cake including coins, beans, pecans and peas. While fun to discover, these are rather mundane compared to the precious stones and jewels said to have been baked into King Cakes by Louisiana plantation owners in the late 19th century.
The custom of King Cake dates back to 12th century France in celebrations of the coming of the three wise men in holidays such as the Feast of Epiphany, Twelfth Night and King's Day.
“We’ve been selling King Cakes before I started working here which was 22 years ago,” said Donna Strickland, manager of the family owned Calumet Bakery. “They’re very popular during Mardi Gras season. It’s something different that people enjoy.”
The bakery has been in business since 1935 with locations in Whiting and Lansing.
The King Cakes at Calumet Bakery come in 16 different flavors including sweet cheese, raspberry, custard and strawberry. Mardi Gras beads are added to the center of the cake.
“Am I going to make King Cakes?” asked Angela McCrovitz rather incredulously. “Of course. It wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without it.”
McCrovitz, owner of Angela’s Pantry in Miller Beach, said her restaurant, which is usually closed on Tuesdays, will be open on Feb. 12 in celebration of Mardi Gras, as well as Wednesday, Feb. 13.
“Wednesday nights are usually our tapas nights,” she said about the Spanish appetizers. “But this February we’ll feature Mardi Gras foods such as crab beignets, crab cakes with a Cajun dipping sauce, Cajun gumbo with shrimp, crawfish, oysters, rice and Andouille sausage. I also might do a crawfish étouffée and Bayou burger sliders topped with a rémoulade sauce as well as crab beignets.”
Angela’s will also be serving Hurricanes, the popular New Orleans rum and passion fruit drink, consumed in the city at all times of the year but particularly during Mardi Gras.
The following recipes are courtesy of Angela’s Pantry.
1 egg, beaten
1 pound chopped lump crab
4 green onions, chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup bread flour
Oil for deep-fat frying
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 teaspoon prepared horseradish, optional
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
DIRECTIONS: In a large bowl, combine the egg, crab, onions, butter, salt and cayenne. Stir in flour until blended.
In an electric skillet or deep fryer, heat oil to 375 degrees. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter, a few at a time, into hot oil. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, ketchup, horseradish if desired and pepper sauce. Serve with beignets. Yield: about 2 dozen (3/4 cup sauce).
Passion Fruit Hurricanes
2 cups passion fruit juice
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup lime juice
3/4 cup light rum
3/4 cup dark rum
3 tablespoons grenadine syrup
6 to 8 cups ice cubes
Orange slices and maraschino cherries
DIRECTIONS: In a pitcher, combine the fruit juice, sugar, lime juice, rum and grenadine; stir until sugar is dissolved.
Pour into hurricane or highball glasses filled with ice. Garnish with orange slices and cherries. Yield: 6 servings.
Mardi Gras King Cake
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110° to 115°)
1/2 cup warm milk (110° to 115°)
1/3 cup shortening
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cans (12-1/2 ounces each) almond cake and pastry filling
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons water
Purple, green and gold colored sugar
DIRECTIONS: In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add the milk, shortening, sugar, salt, egg and 2 cups flour. Beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky).
Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; divide in half. Roll one portion into a 16-in. x 10-in. rectangle. Spread almond filling to within 1/2 in. of edges. Roll up jelly-roll style, starting with a long side; pinch seam to seal. Place seam side down on a greased baking sheet; pinch ends together to form a ring. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. For glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar, vanilla and enough water to achieve desired consistency. Spread over cooled cakes. Sprinkle with colored sugars. Yield: 2 cakes (12 servings each).