Jude Tortorice of Rao's Bakery has stories to tell when it's king cake season. His father, Jake, bought the 72-year-old Beaumont-based bakery from Johnny Rao 15 years ago and today the three locations -- including one in Spring and one in Nederland -- remain the most popular bakeries in and around Houston for the annual Mardi Gras pastry, in part because the Tortorices have kept the old Rao's traditions intact.
"We'll probably sell 1,000 king cakes up to Tuesday, easily," says Tortorice. "And that's just walk-ins. We'll probably do another 600 or so special orders."
Rao's bakes the cakes 30 to 40 at a time, in an elaborate process that requires a proof time of at least one hour and bake time of another hour. One year, says Tortorice, a customer ordered 210 cakes in one fell swoop.
"We started at 8 p.m. the day before to get out that many king cakes," he says, exhausted by the mere memory. "My head baker recruited his brother to help him out." The king cakes were destined for the man's employees and customers, recalls Tortorice, many of whom were no doubt excited to get a Rao's king cake of their own.
I, personally, have never had a good king cake. I think they taste like stale croissants covered in dollar-store icing, and I've never understood the allure despite knowing the cakes are steeped in tradition that dates back nearly 150 years to the Mardi Gras balls held at the New Opera House in New Orleans. But I've also never had a Rao's king cake, so perhaps that's part of the problem.
"You are not interested in sweets, so I can understand why you wouldn't care for it at all," my friend Brandi Lalanne responded when I asked her about the pastry. The most hard-core Cajun I know, Lalanne hoards the "good" king cakes she gets from New Orleans and even commissioned a cake based on her family's recipe last year.
Lalanne also blames Houston bakeries (although Rao's wasn't specifically mentioned) for ruining the Mardi Gras cake she knows and loves. "The stuff in Houston is processed, stale and covered in so much icing that even sugar lovers wouldn't be able to handle more than a piece," she says.
"I don't care what bakeries say in Houston," Lalanne says. "Their shit is gross and old. And in essence, it's not made with love."
While it felt good to have my intense dislike of Houston king cakes validated as "a gross mix of weird, stale bread" covered in "processed goop" and stuffed "with weird-ass jams," I now find myself on Fat Tuesday with a sense of longing for a food I've apparently never had.
Lalanne apologized to me for never sharing the cakes she'd brought home from Haydel's or Randazzo's in New Orleans, "made fresh daily and from old recipes that are unchanged." They are also made, she tells me, with real butter and braided.
That last step is a must, differentiating a Cajun-style king cake from its older counterparts: gâteau des Rois from France and rosca de reyes from Spain, ring-shaped cakes which pre-date the king cake and are its direct ancestors -- tiny token inside included.
"It's made into an oval and braided for a reason," Lalanne stresses. "It's not just tradition and meaning; it's part of the baking process."
Jude Tortorice agrees.
"It's an elaborate process," he explains. "It takes 30 minutes to roll out the dough and put the filling in it -- one strip with cream cheese and one with whatever flavor -- and then seal off these two long strips of dough with filling inside of them. Then you take each one and twirl them and twist them together and connect the two ends."
He tells me about the ballet-like way in which the big, burly bakers artistically braid the dough together, chuckling: "I should take a video of that one day."
Although Rao's offers king cakes in a dazzling array of flavors and styles, Tortorice admits that the traditional cake is still their number-one seller (followed closely by strawberry-cream cheese). And for fans of this pastry genre, tradition is what matters most.
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"Authentic king cake -- warm from the oven, soft but sturdy enough to not fall apart in your hand -- with a cup of coffee in the morning is one of my most favorite things," Lalanne says. "Mom will literally cry over the right king cake that takes her back to her youth and tradition."
Tortorice warns that Mardi Gras walk-ins have to come early to get a cake today. "We will probably only have 70 or 80 king cakes that we've just finished glazing that are in the store," he says. Since I'm a late riser, it looks like I'll have to gain a deeper appreciation of king cake next year.