King Cake: Magic Time Travel Pastry

Dong Phuong King Cake and coffee. (Ronit Schlam)

I thought I’d heard the door buzzer during the day, but as I walked by the box on the floor in the lobby, I didn’t stop to look at it. It didn’t look like a record— the only packages I usually get— but eBay people box things up strangely sometimes, so I didn’t give it much thought. I checked the mailbox, then grabbed the box, all too casually. The box was oddly heavy. I was upstairs and almost inside my apartment before I squinted down the name on the return address. It hit me.

“Call Jenni! Call Jenni!” I hollered to my wife, already in hysterics and shaking. I left the door wide open, box on the table, box cutter in hand. “What?” my wife said, not getting it. “Call Jenni!” I was shaking enough that I shouldn’t really have been handling a blade. Then she got it. “STOP IT,” she said, in a deep, guttural tone—her version of Elaine Benes’ shove-and-“Get out!” She grabbed her phone as I got the box open. Inside, was pure joy: A Dong Phuong King Cake.

I’m not from New Orleans and I didn’t grow up there, but I think I might have an inkling as to why New Orleans natives, locals, and diaspora have a disproportionate swoon for King Cake. My great grandmother had this pie. I don’t think I ever met her, but I certainly knew my grandmother Margaret, who must have learned how to make this pie back in the 1930s. It is a Ghirardelli chocolate meringue pie. The filling is made of unsweetened Ghirardelli chocolate — of course, this was California — sweetened, bound, and thickened, topped with a thick meringue baked to dark russet peaks, set for 24 hours in the Frigidaire.

My mother and her siblings grew up on this pie. I have vivid memories of coming in to my Granny’s kitchen the morning after Thanksgiving or Christmas and finding her and my mother having morning coffee and chocolate pie. They always said it was better than having it for desert.

We were the third generation to grow up on this pie. As far as I know, I’m the only one in my generation to make it. Because I’m Gen X — dialectically, both nihilistic and a show off — I’ve changed it up just a little. I don’t really mess with the recipe, which is inexact by modern standards anyway: you have to be taught how to measure a “heaping tablespoon” the way Great Grandma did it, and no, it doesn’t involve an actual measuring tablespoon. But I like to lean on the vanilla a bit, and the pie filling recipe was not passed down with a pie crust recipe, so I’ve learned from modern internet artisans to make an all-butter crust (I’m sure my mom used shortening). But the highest joy in baking this pie has been in serving it to my mother, and when she was still with us, my Granny: watching their faces instantly transported to childhood. To deep-seated memories that can’t be articulated, that are sheer feelings, pure smells and sensations that live in the body and vibrate with a resonance, like a tuning fork ringing your favorite note. On some level, it’s just not about the pie.

That chocolate pie is my mom’s family’s Magic Time Travel Pastry. I can only imagine where it took my Granny, the last time I saw her eat it, in my tiny apartment in Brooklyn. For me, that pie is my Granny’s kitchen in South San Francsico, the sun drenching the room, the view of the bay and the airport, the smell of wood and coffee and the slight sour tint of recently-poached-egg water. My mom at the table with coffee and pie, her face girlish, a surprising face for a child to see on his own mother, yet joyfully comforting. We were all kids. We’re all kids, still.

The entire city of New Orleans shares their own Magic Time Travel Pastry, and it’s called King Cake. Whoever you are, you grew up on a certain style or a certain bakery, and while you know it’s the best you’ll still try a new one. When you go to someone’s house during Carnival Season, there’s a box on the kitchen counter with a knife in it. Wherever you go, even if you’re just joining friends on the parade route, there’s sure to be a box lying about, and by the time Ash Wednesday comes you’re joking — but not really joking — about King Cake saturation. And when Twelfth Night comes, you can’t wait to get your first piece. Tourists will ask about the baby, and, yeah, that’s cute and all, but it’s not the important part. What matters is that when you take a bite of King Cake, you’re home.

What matters is that when you take a bite of King Cake, you’re home.

I started going to Mardi Gras in my 20s, and I probably didn’t have King Cake until I was 30 — you don’t go to a lot of people’s houses as a tourist bead whore, and I’m not a huge pastry junkie. But for the past 6 years we’ve spent the entirety of Carnival Season in New Orleans, and if there is one thing DEEPLY STRANGE about the pandemic that somehow, unbelievably, has managed to outweigh all the other deeply strange occurrences over the past 12 months, it is that it’s January and I’m in Brooklyn. We should be in New Orleans, knee-deep in Mardi Gras culture: crafting nights with our friends, every weekend jammed with social events and volunteering obligations with our Krewes, and eating way too much King Cake.

A dear friend of ours turned us on to Dong Phuong’s a few years ago. I remember her pointing it out to us at a party on Mardi Gras Day; she had told us about the Vietnamese bakery’s transcendent take on the classic, and there it was, on a big, crowded table, being ignored by revelers who were reaching for closer boxes. “That one,” I can still see her smiling face, her voice lowered, like a drug user clandestinely offering a hit to a friendly: “That’s the Dong Phuong.”

Listen y’all, I’ve been in New York 22 years and I’ll argue all day about which slices are better than others, but when we’re done arguing I’m going to Sal’s and you can’t tell me that’s not the best. This stuff is personal. And Dong Phuong’s is the best. Not that I don’t want to eat whatever King Cake you think is the best, because you know damn well I do.

Well, the very next year the internet found out about Dong Phuong and you can Google the rest. It’s super hard to get, pre-COVID. By the time my wife and I thought about it this year, around Twelfth Night, they were sold out of deliveries for the season. We maybe mentioned it in passing to a couple of close friends. We weren’t trolling for charity — we really weren’t. I ordered some gel colors and planned to bake one myself; it would be my second attempt, but my first wasn’t bad, and at least around here no one would be able to tell me it wasn’t “traditional” enough. They’d likely say some shit like, “Oh, it’s just a cinnamon roll,” and we’d say “Now y’all hush.”

So I’m not exaggerating when I say I was hysterical and shaking when I opened that box. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my body. Turns out our dear friends had ordered two Dong Phuong’s long ago, and they popped that second “bonus” cake into a box without bothering to tell us—promptly blowing our minds.

We didn’t even get it out of the bag. We’d done the damage of unruly children by the time we got off the phone with them. There was talk about sharing it — the best of all King Cakes — with some close Brooklyn friends who have never had King Cake at all, but let’s be honest: they won’t get it. It won’t take them anywhere. And also, there’s not that much left. Speaking of, I better get my steadily-fattening ass off this chair and go pop some in the freezer so we can have it on Fat Tuesday.

We’re all missing so much this year. But my wife and I are so insanely grateful to have been taken home for a brief moment. Also, sometimes, it is just about the cake.

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Bradley Spinelli

Bradley Spinelli

Books: Killing Williamsburg, The Painted Gun. FIlm: #AnnieHall. Words: Bedford+Bowery. 13spinelli.com