Sisters Doing It For Themselves
For one thing I've never sampled one, so I didn't know what it was supposed to look or taste like; baking blind can be as much of a gamble as an untried amusement park ride is for the motion-sick. More important I didn't exactly want to be too closely involved with the reason for the King Cake in the first place -- a "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" party.
Inspired by Rebecca Wells's book and subsequent movie, Divine Secrets et al., women around the country have been forming their own "sisterhoods." Although their activities vary, most of them throw Ya-Ya dinner do's that feature authentic drinks and eats that appear on celluloid, like Vivi's Bloody Mary, and other dishes derived from the region. Sometimes guests are required to dress in period costume, or assume the roles of the characters. Nearly everyone is inspired to randomly yell "Ya-Ya!" at some point in the evening, which can be construed as a sister's call to arms (i.e. martinis). The affairs almost always include a screening of the movie. And if that little explanation doesn't lend enough understanding, there are Websites specific to the point on how to throw a Ya-Ya bash.
I have nothing against theme parties, but quite frankly I'm not the sister type. At least I never used to be. Groups of women, starting with troupes of cheerleaders and ending with sororities, used to scare me. As a result my closest friends are frequently men. I always liked to play on the boys' soccer team instead of (or in addition to) the girls', and when I was a senior in college I moved out of the off-campus house I shared with five female roommates and into another, more easygoing den of iniquity where I had five male roommates. The place was always a pigsty, but at least I didn't have to deal with PMS multiplied by six. Ya-Ya? Heck, no.
Either I've mellowed over the years or I have an extreme inability to say no. These days I belong to a professional women's writers group and a female culinary guild, and I actually enjoy attending the meetings despite the ever-present estrogen that tinges the air. Thus my nickname at the Ya-Ya party, in keeping with the titles the girls in the book bestowed upon one another in their youth, such as Countess Singing Cloud and Princess Naked-as-a-Jaybird, seemed particularly apropos: Princess Shedding Her Fears.
Indeed anyone can be christened with a Ya-Ya appellation, courtesy of the "Ya-Ya Name Generator" (www.moviefone.com), which spits out the nonsensical monikers on cue. During a Ya-Ya party, double your hosting pleasure and make your newly inaugurated Countess Green Thumb or Countess Standing Turkey wear a name tag. Like being pinned, I guess, it's all part of the fun. But of course the real reason anyone should agree to attend such an event is this: I'm only anywhere for the food.
In the case of Ya-Ya parties, "divine dishes" can vary in both range and preparation. But they must have one common element -- their origin. So you can make Brunswick stew minus the squirrel and rabbit, if you so desire, and you can serve it with a hefty dollop of jambalaya, a soupçon of gumbo, a pan of corn bread ... you get the point.
Where to find recipes? The official Ya-Ya movie Website, natch (yayasisterhood.warnerbros.com). Then there's the search-engine trick. I entered Ya-Ya and came up with 38,300 matches; many of the first 100 or so led to recipes. And, of course, you can always crack a classic. The South is the bastion of the Junior League community cookbook, and lucky for us, Nicole had brought just such a resource back with her after visiting home for the holidays.
Too bad she couldn't remember the King Cake, which is a symbol of Mardi Gras and contains a little naked baby believed to represent Jesus; whoever gets the slice of cake with the babe-minus-manger in it gets to be treated as "king" for the day. The cake is shaped like a crown and covered with sticky-sweet icing in the vivid hues of purple, green, and gold (to represent the three kings who visited Jesus at Epiphany), and the final product, I am assured, is delicious.
You couldn't tell by our version, which contained far too much salt and was tough from rising for too long. Fortunately watching the movie itself was a perfect way to clear our palates, given the single rule that dominated our screening: Whoever spotted a misty, sentimental tear got to declare an "all-drink." It probably goes without saying that fifteen women watching a melodramatic chick flick shout for an all-drink about as frequently as the main characters utter the words Ya-Ya. Which also might explain why I just can't remember how the Ya-Ya party concluded. But I do remember one thing: Despite my initial trepidation, the party itself was a whole lot better than the movie, which was more like a No-No.
The dreaded call came in as I was driving home after a long hard day of eating. "Nicole forgot the King Cake," my friend and neighbor Tabitha reported, "and neither of us have ever baked with yeast. We're coming over to your house so you can supervise." A King Cake, apparently, is more like a sweet bread, and Louisiana native Nicole was supposed to have mail-ordered one from New Orleans.
Clearly this was reason to panic. In such situations, though far from an expert, I have no problem sharing whatever culinary know-how I have. And contrary to popular belief, which I deliberately play into sometimes, I like to cook and bake and do all those homey kinds of things on one of the few evenings out of the month that I am home. But no way did I want to make a King Cake.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.