You wouldn’t know it today, but Mardi Gras, until recently, was a religious holiday. What is now a no-holds-barred bacchanal celebrated with rich foods, plastic beads and barrels of liquor began in the Middle Ages as a day of confession, penitence and prayer, and a feast in the evening before Ash Wednesday brought the fasting season.
Mardi Gras is a Catholic holiday that has expanded, thanks to the hospitality industry, to include hedonists, frat boys and exhibitionist women. In Protestant churches—at least in the more staid Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian sects, it’s Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday, like Mardi Gras, is a day of confession and prayer followed by a feast. It’s just that the feast is a bit more sober and understated than the most flamboyant of Mardi Gras celebrations.
Shrove Tuesday means pancakes—and in the more rollicking congregations, waffles. With toppings!
Back in the day—from roughly the Middle Ages to Victorian times—the lord of the manor would order his cupboards cleared of tempting sweets and fats in preparation for Lent. And as a gesture of feudal goodwill, he ordered up pancakes to be served to the serfs and peasants. This served a few purposes—it used up the fats and sugar and headed off temptation during Lent, it was an act of charity before God, and it helped stave off peasant revolts.
Many Protestant churches carry on the tradition, despite a modern lack of peasants and serfs, by holding Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers. Salem Lutheran Church on Battery Avenue has one on Tuesday, March 8, 4-7 p.m. Tickets are $8 adults, and proceeds benefit the church. See the Lenten Calendar, page 9, for details.
“Why ‘shrove’? It’s from an old word meaning to confess and receive absolution,” says Salem Lutheran pastor Barbara Melosh. “No ‘shriving’ required at our pancake supper, but available any Sunday at our worship!”
Polish Catholic parishes serve paczki on the Tuesday before Lent. They are fried and filled with sweet jam, and look like jelly doughnuts only smaller. Looks are deceiving though—paczki dough is rich with butter and eggs and sometimes milk and they are a feast in themselves. St. Casimir Church has a Paczki Dance coming up on Sunday—for details see the Community Calendar on page 8.
The centerpiece of a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras celebration is a gaudy confection called a king cake. It’s more a pastry than a cake, a sweet bread twisted into a circle shape, slathered with sweet icing and decorated with purple, green and gold sugar. Somewhere in the king cake is a plastic figurine of a baby, meant to symbolize the Christ Child. Whoever gets the baby is said to be lucky for the whole year.
New Orleans king cakes are a pain to bake and cost a fortune by mail order, but you can cheat and make king cupcakes to celebrate Mardi Gras. Here’s a recipe, courtesy of King Arthur Flour, www.kingarthurflour.com.
Mardi Gras King Cupcakes
1 cup granulated sugar
1 2/3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons soft butter
2/3 cup milk, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia; OR 1 teaspoon vanilla + 1/8 teaspoon lemon oil
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons butter, at room temp
1/2 cup (half of an 8-ounce package) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon lemon oil
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons milk, enough to make a spreadable icing
colored sugars, preferably purple, yellow, and green
1) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour a muffin tin. You can also line the muffin tins with papers, and spray the insides of the papers.
2) To make the cupcakes: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt.
3) Add the butter and beat with an electric mixer at low speed, until the mixture looks sandy.
4) Combine the milk and vanilla and add, all at once. Mix at low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Scrape the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl.
5) With the mixer running at low speed, add 1 egg. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Add the second egg, again beating for 30 seconds.
6) Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat briefly, just till smooth.
7) Scoop the batter by heaping 1/4-cupfuls into the prepared muffin tin. A muffin scoop works well here.
Bake the cupcakes for 23 to 25 minutes, until they’ve domed, and are a light golden brown around the edges. They’ll spring back when pressed gently on top, and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.
9) Remove the cupcakes from the oven, and place on a rack to cool completely before icing.
10) To make the icing: Combine the butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and lemon oil in a medium-sized bowl, and beat them together until light and fluffy.
11) Add the sugar gradually, beating well.
12) Beat in the milk a little at a time, until the frosting is a spreadable consistency.
13) Spread each cake with icing, and immediately dip in gold, purple, and green sparkling sugars, covering about 1/3 of the cupcake with each color sugar.
14) Store at room temperature for several days. For longer storage, wrap well and freeze.
Yield: 12 cupcakes.
Note: The Baltimore Guide will be reporting on local Lenten meals and activities in its Lenten Calendar, as space permits. Items for Lenten Calendar can be mailed to The Baltimore Guide at 526 S. Conkling Street, Baltimore, MD 21224, faxed to 410-732-6604, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline for each week’s issue is Friday at noon of the week before. A contact name, phone number or e-mail must be included with all submissions.
by Jacqueline Watts