For years, Steve Himelfarb sold his layered cakes door-to-door, earning the nickname "Cake Man," before opening up the New Orleans Cake Cafe (2440 Chartres St., 504-943-0010; www.nolacakes.com). Himelfarb built a Carnival season following for his goat cheese and apple king cakes, and he spoke with Gambit about his take on the local confection.
Why did you get into the king cake game?
Himelfarb: I started baking cakes out of my house 20-some years ago. When I opened Cake Cafe in the Marigny, I knew I wanted to have a signature king cake. ... I think it's really important as a baker in New Orleans to be able to bake a king cake. As I got a taste for the cakes, I knew what I liked and what I didn't like. The color glaze is something I wanted to do, because I'm not really into that crunchy sugar thing. I've always felt that a king cake should be a piece of art, like those posters for Mardi Gras with their bold colors. I wanted it to have fresh fruit and I ... wanted to do it all from scratch.
Before [Hurricane Katrina], the (cakes) fell into a supermarket quality; they were just horrible. Everyone got them, but there were very few standouts. So I knew I wanted to do something special, and I wanted it to be different. I never want to leave tradition behind, though. Never lose the foundation — build on the foundation.
There is a point where some of them get overdone and people try too hard and the flavors get lost. Many times, people think it's supposed to be sweet, but that's the kind of thing that annoys me. There should be some dominant flavor going on, but with some of them, I just don't know what I'm supposed to taste. I don't believe they should always be this overly sweet concoction: The first thing you should taste is not sugar or shortening.
Do the recent weather changes affect baking?
H: Absolutely. There is a lot of trial and error involved, even now. Even if you go back to the recipe, you have to work with it. The weather is a big factor, especially this time of year. The weather affects everything and the humidity affects everything. On a cold morning, the dough doesn't rise the way you expect it to ... and if it's really hot, the timing will be completely different. You can't rush baking; it's a process, and you can't cut corners. The dough is going to tell you what it's going to do, based on the weather. So it's going to change from day to day.
Do you have to hire extra staff to keep up with demand?
H: We're preparing to be busy. We do ask that people call us ahead to order cakes, but we make extras. We'll usually do somewhere between 100 and 150 king cakes (per day), sometimes more. That's us working around the clock; we're not a machine and we're not shipping them all over the country.
I've hired four extra people, some who will end up sticking around and some who are just around for (the season). I'll go in at [1 a.m.] and usually won't leave until about 3 or 4 p.m. For me, it's a mental preparation. It's actually easier (this year) because it's a short season. When you start to get into eight weeks, there's ebbs and flows, but I think everyone knows that we're doing this for 34 more days, and we're just going to do it and get through it.