NEW ORLEANS — Pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin certainly can turn out a delicious traditional king cake — one with a premium brioche dough, rich with butter and eggs. But these days it's his inspired variations on that classic that he's most passionate about.
His Bourbon Street king cake, for example, with chocolate custard, bourbon and toasted pecans. Or there is his General Foster king cake with a bananas Foster-type filling; the Woodlawn Plantation, with praline cream and Southern Comfort; or even the Pontchartrain, filled with Bavarian cream custard, sliced strawberries, almonds and whipped cream.
"Every year I do something a little different, something new," Albin says. "It makes things interesting."
Interesting, and perhaps unrecognizable to those first French settlers who brought the annual Mardi Gras celebration — as well as its king cake — to Louisiana 300 years ago.
Traditional versions are a simple circle of buttery dough spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with a sugar icing. And while those still represent the dominant king cake, each year sees more variations as bakers pump them full of fruits, cheeses, chocolate and other flavors.
"The filled king cake trend started in the 1970s," says Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. "People wanted things that were sweeter and sweeter, and bakers wanted to be different. Before that king cakes looked the same and were pretty much the same."
These days, at least two dozen flavors and fillings are readily available. In addition to most fruits, you also can get such exotic flavors as praline, cream cheese and almond paste.
At Navarre's Famous King Cakes in Springfield, La., about 45 miles northwest of New Orleans, Earnie Navarre has even introduced a sweet potato praline king cake.
"A friend of mine is a big fan of sweet potatoes, and he asked me to make a king cake with them for him," Navarre said. "It's a lot like a sweet potato casserole, with brown sugar and pecans."
Rhonda Ruckman, pastry chef for the Donald Link restaurants and retail shop Butcher, was eager to experiment with some new flavors, after having been away from the city — and Mardi Gras — for several years.
"I'm definitely doing the classic cake, but I wanted to try some new things," Ruckman said. "I'm making a chocolate creme cake with a wonderful brioche dough, a layer of sour cream, devil food crumbs and chocolate chips."
For most bakeries the cream cheese cakes, or a combination of cream cheese and fruit, are the most popular of the king cakes. Strawberry fillings are close behind.
At Randazzo's King Cakes, customers lined up by the hundreds to get their king cakes on Jan. 6 (or Twelfth Night), the traditional opening of the Carnival season. Mardi Gras starts Tuesday.
Randazzo's offers half a dozen flavors, including its royal king cake, which is quartered off with cream cheese, apple, lemon and strawberry fillings in each section, and even a fleur-de-licious king cake, with black and gold icing in a nod to Saints fans.
Manny Randazzo, the second generation to operate the bakery, says the new flavors may have their fans, but at his bakeries the traditional king cake remains the big seller.
"It can get pretty crazy with all the fills, the double fills, the flavors," Randazzo said. "But 75 percent of our sales are still the traditional cake. People who say it's dry or not flavorful enough have not had one with a rich brioche and the hint of cinnamon. It's definitely a crowd-pleaser."