A Gulf coast Mardi Gras tradition you can sink your teeth into
Mardi Gras is in full swing along the Gulf coast. One favorite carnival tradition is called a King Cake. It’s a large pastry shaped like a crown with cinnamon, chocolate, or cream cheese filling inside. It’s usually covered in gold, green, and purple sprinkles. There’s also a Fat Tuesday tradition that whoever finds the small, plastic baby hidden in a slice of king cake is granted good luck. They also have to bring a King Cake to the next gathering. Here’s the story of one Dauphin* Island baker and how her Mardi Gras cakes are a family tradition…
Christa Jones takes orders from customers at Lighthouse Bakery. She’s surrounded by bags of frosting and green, purple and yellow sprinkles. All the stuff you need to make another batch of king cakes.
“We'll always do the Purple Cross and the sprinkles,” Jones said while she worked.
Tradition says the French brought the pastry to New Orleans in 1870. Today, bakers across the Gulf Coast add their own twists.
“And that was you know the Purple Cross is going to be the most bold color and symbol that they see on the king cake,” she added.
Jones injects the cake with cream cheese. Then turns it over and frosts it upside down. Making sure the whole cake is covered in icing.
“The king cake is a representation of a cake for Jesus because of Lent and Mardi Gras,” Jones said.
This bakery was really the dream of Mary Scarcliff. Christa’s mother. Christa was ten when the bakery opened. Her first jobs were washing dishes and making sandwiches.
“I would get paid in pushup popsicles because ice cream was better than money,” Jones said with a laugh. “Then I got smart and started getting paid.”
Christa didn’t plan on taking over Lighthouse Bakery. She worked there during the day and attended real estate school at night. But when Mary was ready to retire, she asked her daughter to run the bakery. Christa said yes.
“She was really happy that I wanted to take it over. She was excited that she was going to get to see me and was going to have retirement and everything.
Mary’s retirement didn’t last long. Three weeks later, she had a massive stroke in December 2017. It was a brain tumor. Christa felt unprepared suddenly taking over the bakery and wished she could learn more from her mother.
“I was like, can you help me?” She recalled. “Dad helped bring her up here. By that time, she had already had a brain biopsy surgery. She was struggling. It was hard on her, but she was determined to be here for the first day that I officially took it over. She sat on the stool and showed me how to roll the dough and form it for the sandwich buns and stuff.”
Mary passed away on July 25th, 2018. The bells on the front door ring every time a customer enters the bakery, reminding Christa of her mother.
“Mama had the bells on the front door, and I've kept them there. She had those at the first bakery building, then moved them here,” she said. “Every time you open the door, you can hear customers coming in. She wanted to make sure you can get there to serve them.”
Christa says her family returned to the bakery after her mother’s funeral service to clean things up. The bakery was closed, but the bells started ringing on their own.
“Every once in a while, the bells just ring on their own, even when a customer isn't coming in. It's a cool kind of reminder of y'all are doing good. We love it,” Jones said.
Cookbooks are another reminder of Mary. Twenty years of Southern Living Annual Recipes books fill a shelf in the office that Christa took over from her mother. Christa still uses many of her mother’s recipes.
“We have handpicked ones where she wrote specific recipes. We keep it all original,” Jones said
Lighthouse Bakery’s traditional King Cakes are Mary’s recipes.
“Our King Cakes are like a big sweet roll,” said Jones. Amaretto cream cheese was her favorite filling. But Christa has also expanded the King Cake options.
The king cakes I did on accident. I was trying to make it like she did. But of course, I do things bigger. I saw how it came out and liked it even more. It looked more like a king hat. It looked even cooler and gives us space to fill it with even more with cream cheese fillings that we do. And then we top it off with the baby. I do king cake bites and king cake cupcakes. I make a completely different signature Royal King cake. That's a cinnamon cake with a cinnamon buttercream frosting. It still has the sprinkles and the colors, but I'll put a little crown on it instead of the baby. It's just really pretty instead of looking like deflated tires with stuff on them or the big king hat. It’s something different,” Jones said.
Christa, thanks so much for making these special king cakes,” said one customer. “We're initiating some friends that are coming in from Arkansas. They have never been to a Mardi Gras parade or Dauphin Island.”
Comments and stories like this from customers reassure Christa that she is heading in the right direction.