Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Robert St. John: Neck Deep in King Cake Development

It looks like 2023 will go down as the year of the king cake— at least in my book. I have bought more king cakes, eaten more king cakes, and sold more king cakes this year than all my previous years put together, and probably by a factor of 20. 


For the past six years I have been working on opening a bakery in my hometown of Hattiesburg. But I wasn’t going to go forward with it until I had two very specific people on board— Pastry Chef Martha Foose and her husband and Head Baker Donald Bender. As early as 2016 I started working to try and get them to move out of the Mississippi Delta and down to the Pine Belt. 


Each of them has a substantial amount of knowledge experience in the baking/pastry world. Foose, a classically trained pastry chef moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles where she worked at Denzel Washington’s restaurant Georgia, then with Nancy Silverton at LaBrea Bakery. She was educated as a pastry chef in the French classical style at Ecole L'Nortre in France. After school she moved back to Mississippi, and in 1995 and opened Bottletree Bakery in Oxford. There she met, and married, Bender, her head baker. From Bottletree the two moved to New Orleans. She worked in Susan Spicer’s kitchen at Bayona and he worked for Spicer at Spice Inc. From there the couple moved to Minneapolis where she baked and worked in development at Pillsbury, he did a stint at the award-winning Turtle Bread Bakery. They eventually moved home to the Delta where they opened Mockingbird Bakery in Greenwood. 


When Viking sold and got out of the local hospitality business, Mockingbird was closed and Foose turned to cookbooks. She wrote four, ghost wrote another dozen or so, and won a James Beard Award in the process. It was during her cookbook phase that I started trying to lure her out of the Delta, down to the Pine Belt, off the written page, and back into a bakery. Six long years later— after much pleading and scheming— the uber talented couple are here, and we are weeks away from opening the long-planned Loblolly Bakery.


Mardi Gras is big in Hattiesburg. That comes as a surprise to outsiders. Most people think of Mardi Gras being a New Orleans thing, or a Mobile thing from its early origins, or even a Mississippi Gulf Coast event. But Mardi Gras has strong roots in Hattiesburg and there are several krewes that celebrate the season. The krewe I am a member of will turn 100 next year and hosts dinners and events that rival any formal gathering in the Crescent City. King cakes are popular here.


Our New Orleans-themed restaurant has served King Cake Bread Pudding for over three decades. Our burger joint makes a mean King Cake Milkshake, and our breakfast concept rolled out a King Cake French Toast this year. With the bakery on the horizon, we knew we’d be baking a lot of king cakes, and we knew we needed to get them right. So, we started that ball rolling a little early while the carnival season was still with us.


I travelled down to New Orleans a few weeks ago with one mission— to find the holy grail of Mardi Gras, the elusive Dong Phuong Bakery King Cake. I wanted to bring one back to Foose and Bender to have them sample what all the fuss is about. Though, as I am wont to do, I went a little overboard and came home with 33 king cakes from all over the city. The mission then became— try to prove that there is a better king cake than Dong Phuong. That turned out to be a fruitless assignment as Dong Phuong proved to be the finest of the bunch, and it really wasn’t close.


So, with our bellies full of bread and sugar we set out to create the first versions of the Loblolly King Cake. Though there was one major problem— we don’t have a bakery yet. Due to delays beyond our control, we are several months behind schedule. But we didn’t want to miss Mardi Gras season, so Foose and Bender set up shop working overnights in the Midtowner kitchen, six nights a week. Bender, a recipient of accolades in his own right as an awardee of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Garden of Tradition Award, bakes all night and Foose comes in way before the sun rises and decorates the cakes.


The two have overcome all manner of challenges baking in the Midtowner kitchen. Most commercial and artisanal baking is done in stack ovens that are made to specifically bake breads. They have large capacities, and most can inject steam into the baking process resulting in the perfect loaf. For the past two weeks they’ve been working with one oven down in a kitchen built to pump out southern vegetables and fried chicken. Though they have persevered and have worked long nights and early mornings overcoming dozens of obstacles in their quest to make the perfect king cake.


We all agree that the perfect king cake uses sourdough bread. We grabbed some of the sourdough starter from our Italian restaurant, Tabella. We’ve been feeding it for over 12 years. But the starter is over 100 years old, as my neighbor— and baker of the finest sweet rolls ever— Mary Virginia McKenzie had been feeding it for 45 years, and the lady she got it from, Alice Gunn, had been feeding it for 40 years before that (sidenote: we’ll be serving Mary Virginia McKenzie’s orange sweet rolls in the bakery). 


Bender used his tried-and-true recipe for sourdough bread. It is very good and has a lot of depth in the flavor profile. We also agreed that the topping doesn’t need to be too sweet. Foose added her ermine icing, and we all made sure the tops of the king cakes weren’t loaded with too much granulated sugar.


Foose and Bender have been working from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., six days a week, baking and perfecting our product. We had a rocky start, but we’re just now hitting our stride. We are only able to produce a limited number as they have been only able to bake nine at a time in the Midtowner ovens. Once the baking and decorating is complete, they deliver them to our New Orleans-themed restaurant, Crescent City Grill, where we offer them for sale when we open at 11:00 a.m. They usually only last a few minutes.


We’ll be baking hundreds a day next year. In the meantime, we’ll keep working towards our goal of creating the perfect king cake. 




Laissez les bon temps rouler!



2 cups             milk

2 cups             heavy whipping cream

3/4 cup           sugar, divided

4                     egg yolks

8                     eggs

2 tsp               vanilla

1/8 tsp             salt

1 tsp               cinnamon


1                    8-10” round cream cheese filled King Cake



Place the milk, cream and half of the sugar in a small sauce pot and place over medium heat. Bring this mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent the sugar from burning. While the milk mixture is heating, place the remaining sugar, egg yolks, whole eggs, vanilla and salt into a stainless steel mixing bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat the egg mixture until it become light yellow in color. Slowly begin adding the hot milk to the beaten eggs, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking. 

Cut the King Cake into two inch thick slices.

Pour half of the custard into a two-quart round Pyrex baking dish (nine-inch diameter).

Submerge the King cake slices into the custard. Pour the remaining custard over the top and cover the baking dish. Cover and refrigerate over night.


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.


Remove the covering from the refrigerated bread pudding and gently press down the King Cake so that the custard completely covers the surface. Cover the bread pudding with a piece of parchment paper, and then cover the paper with a piece of aluminum foil.

In a roasting pan large enough to hold the Pyrex dish, place two inches of hot water. Place the Pyrex dish in the water and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and parchment paper and bake for 10 additional minutes.


Remove from the oven and allow the pudding to rest for one hour before serving.

Serve with Brandy Crème Anglais


Yields 8-10 servings

Brandy Crème Anglaise



1cup cream

1/2 cup half and half

1/4 cup brandy

3/4 cup sugar, divided

4 egg yolks

1 tsp vanilla extract


In a stainless steel pot bring the cream, half and half, brandy, half of the sugar and to vanilla a simmer. While it is heating, combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a mixing bowl and whip until pale yellow in color.


Slowly begin adding the cream mixture into to yolks, stirring constantly until all the milk has cream mixture has been added. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pot and cook over a low-medium flame stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon or spatula.


Remove from the heat and cool down in an ice bath.

This sauce may be made two-three days in advance.


Yields : 8-10 servings



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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS