In New Orleans, king cake is fine, king. From King’s Day (Epiphany Day on January 6) to Shrove Tuesday (March 1 this year), brioche-style ring cakes smothered in yellow, green, and purple icing and sugar reign supreme. the city. Each baker has their own version. Each citizen has his favorite variety. You can find king cakes on t-shirts, leggings, door hangers, and even tattoos throughout the parish. People are serious about their king cake.
But for the past few Mardi Gras seasons, a new cake has been gaining momentum in town: the queen’s cake. While you can find them at various bakeries around town, the queen’s cake at Uptown’s Levee Baking Co. is particularly special. Levee founder Christina Balzebre created her reinvented cake four years ago and it quickly became a favorite in this town of baking connoisseurs.
The bakery’s “galette de reine” is Balzebre’s version of a galette de rois, a traditional French pastry baked in January to celebrate the Epiphany holiday. The galette de rois is made of puff pastry and filled with frangipani (a kind of almond cream).
Galette de Reine de Balzebre is also made with two layers of irresistibly flaky puff pastry, but loaded with local pecans and citrus for a cake truly rooted in the Gulf Coast landscape. Everything is done at the bakery, from the pastry itself to the filling.
There’s also an explicitly feminist bent to Levee’s queen cake, where the combination of the name and moon bean lends a decidedly feminine air.
In 2018, Balzebre’s queen cake was born out of necessity – she operated as a pop-up inside the popular Mosquito Supper Club and didn’t have the space to create the more traditional large yeast dough cake of New Orleans style. She wanted to produce a cake for Mardi Gras season, but felt “burned out” of the king cakes expected during Carnival season.
“For me, having worked in so many commercial kitchens over the years, being a baker during Mardi Gras is tough. It’s one of the hardest jobs,” she says. “So I thought, if we’re going to do this, let’s make a galette de rois, which is a little easier and takes less space to make. I’m going to use pecans instead of almonds. Plus, citrus season is at the same time as Mardi Gras, so it’s come together and offers something a little different for this time of year.
The queen cake takes about three days to create, from making and resting the pastry to assembling the filling. “It’s complicated to make but in the end, these are very simple ingredients,” explains Balzebre. The neat and delicate patterns on the top of each cake are made with a paring knife on a cold dough.
For Balzebre, who has lived in New Orleans for 17 years, local ingredients are at the heart of his reinvented carnival cake. “The whole philosophy behind the bakery is to make sure everything is produced as locally as possible,” she says. “We use local pecans, which we toast ourselves, and citrus fruits, which we entrust ourselves for garnish. Sometimes it’s kumquats, sometimes it’s tangerines or blood oranges, sometimes grapefruits. ”
While most royal cakes come with a plastic baby inside – whoever puts the baby in their piece either gets a lucky year or has to buy the next royal cake, depending on which company you keep – the one de Levee is accompanied by a ceramic moon bean. A fève is a hidden gem in Mardi Gras cakes, a tradition that can be found from France to Louisiana. Before plastic was de rigueur, ceramic babies or other bean shapes (shoes, vegetables, etc.), would have been common in New Orleans king cakes.
Each bean is handmade by local ceramist Jackie Brown, who researched old-fashioned king cake beans. With Balzebre, she chooses a moon shape for the queen cake. Brown makes several large batches of small ceramic moons with faces for the bakery each Mardi Gras season, using a cast, then hand-painting details like the lips, cheeks and eyelashes. So far in 2022, Brown has made about 450 lunar feves for Levee.
There’s also an explicitly feminist bent to Levee’s queen cake, where the combination of the name and moon bean lends a decidedly feminine air. (I recently had a Queen Levee cake at a baby shower, which I thought was incredibly fitting.) “It’s important to flip the script,” Balzebre says. “There’s a lot of feminism intertwined in my business in general.” The intention behind each queen cake is obvious. Each cake has a slightly different design, with the bean placed neatly on top.
Competition for a Queen Levee cake can be tough — you’ll need to pre-order online at least a day before to score a $35 cake (or a slice for $4). Cakes often sell out at Levee’s brick-and-mortar bakery, tucked away in a mint-green building just off New Orleans’ bustling Magazine Street.
Balzebre also emphasizes the teamwork behind a queen cake production. Each cake – around 20 to 50 a day, depending on the time of the season and high demand – was baked by four to five Levee employees, including Balzebre herself. As she says, “For bakers, Mardi Gras season is all about teamwork.”