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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Neck Deep In King Cake Development

February 15, 2023

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.

Onward.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

This week’s recipe: King Cake Bread Pudding

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