France gets credit for bringing the art of baking to Vietnam, its former colony. That tradition continues today in New Orleans at Vietnamese-run bakeries with textbook-perfect croissants, almond-paste cakes and those famously airy, crisp baguettes used for banh mi sandwiches. But we can thank New Orleans' Italian community for the latest twist on the venerable old king cake now being churned out by one of these bakeries, Hi-Do Bakery (441 Terry Pkwy., Gretna, 366-6555).
A few years ago, customers began asking bakery founder Ha Do and his wife Huyen to make their French loaves into animal shapes and other symbols to be used on St. Joseph's altars, the devotional displays of food assembled each March as part of a Sicilian tradition.
"We decided we could do the same thing with king cakes for Mardi Gras," says their daughter Kim Chi Do. "So we picked things like local seafood that we know everyone here loves."
These are special-order items, but people request them so frequently Hi-Do now produces a continuous flow of king cakes shaped into crabs and crawfish. Cream cheese or fruit fillings channel through their many pastry legs, and customers tell the Do family they usually hide the requisite plastic baby dolls in the claws. Another offbeat option introduced last year has proven explosively popular during this epic Saints season. It's a massive, fleur de lis-shaped king cake, measuring nearly two feet from stem to tip and topped with granulated sugar dyed black and gold.
King cake is ubiquitous this time of year, so a little novelty can make a big impression. While Hi-Do has reconfigured the familiar shape, other creative bakers are making their own distinctive versions of the Carnival classic.
A new rendition from Sucré (3025 Magazine St., 520-8311; www.sucreshop.com) glimmers with a neat, tight shell of iridescent frosting, which paints a jewel-like luster over the light, cinnamon-strewn cake. A king cake with goat cheese and apples from Cake Cafe & Bakery (2440 Chartres St., 943-0010; www.nolacakes.com) may sound far-out, but the unusual filling offers a mildly sour spurt under the cake's spin art splash of dense, smooth frosting. Similarly, the Latin-flavored king cake with guava filling at Norma's Sweet Shop (3221 Georgia Ave., Kenner, 467-4309) lends a tangy snap to the familiar pastry ring.
Despite the eye-catching shapes at Hi-Do, the actual king cake recipe Ha developed is an emulation of the old McKenzie's standard, a traditional brioche braid with a simple sugar coating. A former soldier who fled his country after the war, Ha learned the trade working at a Vietnamese-run bakery in San Francisco in the 1980s. After moving to Louisiana he opened a bakery in Boutte in 1989, and later relocated to Hi-Do's present Gretna address. He was able to bring his wife and children over from Vietnam in 1991. They have remained an integral part of the bakery business, even if their own careers sometimes have led them far from home.
For instance, 30-year-old Kim Chi Do now lives in Durham, N.C., where she is a dentist and her husband Phil Hoang is a physician. Each year at Carnival, the couple travels home to Gretna to help her parents meet king cake demand, which they expect to stay constant with a parade of traditional rings, shellfish shapes and those sweet Saints emblems.
"When the busy season comes, everyone chips in," Kim Chi Do says. "It's crazy like this right up to the end. We live on coffee, bread and whatever pastry we pick at here for days."