Kings Cake and Mardi Gras 2010

Mardi Gras is all about colorful parties, larger-than-life characters, big, raucous belly laughs, plastic Mardi Gras ‘bling’ and seriously delicious foods. One treat associated with the pre-Mardi Gras Carnival season is Kings Cake. Carnival begins on Twelfth night ( Epiphany) and ends at midnight on Mardi Gras ( Fat Tuesday). During that time, estimates are that New Orleaneans eat their fill of over 750,000 Kings Cakes.

New Orleans Kings Cake follows a tradition begun in France when bakers first created a special cake to celebrate Epiphany, the night when the Wise Men came through the desert bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. In these cakes a ceramic feve-favor or ‘bean’ (which represented fertility/the baby Jesus, etc., ) is hidden inside the cake, and whoever receives the ‘bean’ in their piece of cake is crowned King or Queen for a day. The newly crowned King or Queen must also supply the cake for the  following year’s festivities.

This sweet treat first appeared in New Orleans in January, 1870, at the first Twelfth Night ball presided over by the Lord of Misrule. That evening a large Kings Cake was presented to the guests. The cake was cut and slices were distributed with much merriment. Pieces of cake were lobbed up to those in the balcony from the tips of spears. Unfortunately, the piece with the hidden ‘bean’ went missing, so later the practice of packaging individual pieces of cake in little boxes came into practice.

Today in New Orleans, for fear of damaging a tooth on a ceramic ‘bean’ a different approach is taken. The ‘bean’ of choice is now a miniature, plastic baby, and one per cake is used. The plastic baby is not hidden in the cake but sits atop the cake, in plain view, for all to see. In fact, the plastic babies are considered collectible and desirable.

Cake-wise, New Orleans Kings Cake is different from the French version sold in pastry shops in Paris. The French version features light, puff-pastry ring which is filled with a dense almond cream ( frangipane). It is eaten at room temperature or heated slightly.

In New Orleans, the cake is a round or oval coffee cake, that is braided, iced, and festooned with green, gold and purple colored sugars, signifying faith, power and justice.

Our colorful Kings Cake was purchased at Bob’s Bakery in Chicopee. Tomorrow, February 16th, is the last day to buy a Kings Cake until next year. We’ll be sliciing and serving tastes of this cake as long as it lasts tomorrow. Stop by for a taste – which we will not serve from the end of a spear, we promise !


Chinese New Year 2010: Year of the Metal Tiger


I just returned late on Sunday, February 14th from New York City where I had the opportunity to pay a quick visit to Chinatown for lunch and shopping. While many of you may have been planning something romantic for Valentines Day Sunday with your sweetie, in Chinatown, people of all ages were gathering in the streets by late morning to begin celebrating  the start of the Chinese New Year.

Several of the streets in the heart of Chinatown were blocked to vehicular traffic in anticipation of a noontime parade. These newly created ‘pedestrian zones’ allowed friends and families to safely gather and watch as scores of confetti firecrackers were set off in celebration.  The air became thick with bits of colorful paper in just a short time as the confetti floated in the light breeze. It did not take long for the streets and sidewalks to become completely blanketed with confetti and streamers.

By sheer luck, I had the good fortune to come across a group of people dressed in Lion costumes who were dancing to the beat of metal drums in front of local businesse and I was able to enjoy a good view of the action. This small scene gave me a taste of how exciting the big Lion and Dragon Dance parades will be that are scheduled to wend their way through the streets of Chinatown on Sunday, February 21st.

February 14th ushered in the start of the Chinese Year of the Tiger, or more specifically, the Year of the Metal Tiger. I was in Chinatown to search for Year of the Tiger goodies to use in a store display window, and I was not disappointed. Key among my purchases was the paper-mache tiger marionette shown above, and the symbolic ‘metal tiger’ pictured below.

The Chinese horoscope is based on the Lunar Chinese calendar which has a sixty year cycle. Throughout this cycle, the five main elements that make up all matter – Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth – are combined with the twelve animal signs of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Lamb, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. 

During the complete cycle, each animal sign (sometimes also referred to as the twelve Earth branches) repeats five times, and each repetition is influenced by a different main element: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Tiger is third in the cycle, and is linked with metal this year.

The following is a listing of Tiger years from 1902 up until the present year:

Water Tiger: 1902 and 1962

Wood Tiger: 1914 and 1974

Fire Tiger: 1926 and 1986

Earth Tiger: 1938 and 1998

Metal Tiger: 1950 and 2010

Tiger Characteristics:

The Tiger is a natural born leader and symbolizes power, passion and daring; they are by their nature courageous, active, and self-assured.  Rebellious, dynamic, and unpredictable, they can pounce in an instant. People born in the Year of the Tiger are generally well liked because of their charming personalities.  They are optimistic, passionate and independent; quick tempered but considerate.

Tigers are fond of competitions and simply cannot pass up a challenge.  They may appear cool yet can be unpredictable. It is unwise to underestimate their reactions, which can be unpredictable and of the moment.  They have a strong sense of their own dignity, and are intelligent, alert, and farsighted.  Tigers are apt strategists but they also can have a suspicious nature and often act hastily.

Mood swings are common as Tigers love excitement and become restless if they are bored or not in control. Tigers can jump to conclusions hastily and express frustrations with temper tantrums.  But people born in the Year of the Tiger are also straightforward, loyal and dutiful. They can be playful and full of enthusiasm, sentimental and optimistic, and often prefer solitary moments to chaotic ones. Tigers love to travel to exotic places and fill their homes with exotic treasures from far-flung places that they have visited.  They like to spend money, and also to share it.  They can be quite impulsive spenders.

Tigers are fast learners, need a constant challenge and are easily bored. They often work alone but love to be surrounded at home and in social situations with family and friends and have a good time. Critisism or negative comments from friends or colleagues can cause tigers to be depressed for a time before bouncing back to their energetic selves.

Some famous Tigers:

Marco Polo
Mary Queen of Scots
Ludwig von Beethoven
Agatha Christie
Leonardo DiCaprio
Dylan Thomas
Marilyn Monroe

And, I blush to say that I too am a Tiger; in fact, a Metal Tiger. Chinese people often ask each other under what sign they were born, which is a polite way to gauge someone’s approximate age without bluntly asking how old someone is. When the sign alone is given, there may be some latitude for guessing. But when the sign is given with the element attached, the answer is obvious.

Did I mention that another trait of Tigers is to be open and frank ? I guess I just proved that !


Chinese Kitchen God Re-Visited

Last year I posted about the Chinese Kitchen God ( known as Zao Jun or Zao Shen ) but was unable to find a paper likeness of him to hang in our kitchen. Fortunately, my recent foray into New York’s Chinatown netted us a large, glittery, colorful paper image of the Kitchen God accompanied by an overflowing dish of delectable fruits and sweets.

( Note: since I posted this image I have been informed that this paper god is not the Kitchen God but the God of Fortune or Wealth. Oh, dear……so much for trusting what the sellers in the store sold me! )

Traditional Chinese families live by a complex religious belief system, and in order to fare well in this life, they enlist the help of various deities and guardian figures. The Kitchen God oversees every Chinese kitchen. His role is to protect the family in a variety of ways, and to insure that all in the family is fed and properly nourished.

To please the Kitchen God, a paper image of him resides near the back of every stove. A small altar is made for seasonal food offerings and to burn incense and candles. Each year, about one week before the start of the New Year celebrations, the image of the Kitchen God is taken down and burned. By doing this the spirit of the Kitchen God is released from the earth. Thus freed, the Kitchen God is freed to make his annual ascent to Heaven where he will report to the Jade Emperor on the conduct of the family during the past year.

Once in Heaven, the words of the Kitchen God influences the amount of prosperity and abundance that the Jade Emperor will bestow on each family in the New Year.  In order to ensure that the Kitchen God speaks sweetly of the family, offerings of incense and bowls of ’sweet treats’ such as ripe melons, tangerines and oranges, honey, lotus cakes, sugar candies, and little bowls of rice wine are presented for his delight on the seventh day before the start of the New Year.

After the sweet treats have been appreciated, the image of the Kitchen God is burned, which propels his journey up into the Celestial realms. Gold and silver ‘ingots’ fashioned from paper are also offered, and little paper-mache sedan chairs are sometimes provided to offer a comfortable seat on the journey to Heaven.

To welcome the return of the Kitchen God to the family for the new year, a fresh paper image of him is hung where the old one had been. Each family hopes for the same thing from the Kitchen God – abundant food, good harvests and good health. In Heaven good deeds are reported, which in turn ensures safety, abundant food and good health on earth.

Cooks Shop Here Turns 35 Years Young!

 35 Years Gone in the Blink of an Eye

Is it really possible that thirty-five years have gone by since we first opened our little coffee and tea store at 40 Green Street in Northampton in 1974?

Thirty-five years is a very long time to run a business in a small town, especially a niche business such as ours. But our scrapbooks from those earlier days overflow with memorabilia and other ephemera of our life in food. When I look at the pictures of Bob and me from our early days, I chuckle, fully knowing that the two skinny kids with long hair and ‘no retail experience’ still live within the portly, graying, middle-aged ‘us’.