Mardi Gras 2017 falls on Tuesday, February 28. It always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Celebrating the Carnival season, Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) has been a state holiday in Louisiana since the 19th century.
WHAT’S MARDI GRAS?
The Carnival season begins on or after the Epiphany or Kings Day (January 6th), and culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday refers to the practice of eating richer, fatty foods the last night before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras is sometimes referred to as Shrove Tuesday, from the word shrive, meaning “confess.” But the idea of rich foods is far more appealing.
Centuries ago, Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. It stuck, engendering huge Carnival events elsewhere, including New Orleans and Rio de Janiero.
In New Orleans, parades and other celebrations begin the extended weekend before, starting Friday, February 24th.
You don’t have to go all-out to celebrate, or even prepare a Jambalaya Bar for friends and family.
Instead, invite them to drop by for a slice of King Cake, a glass of milk punch, or both.
You can buy a King Cake—the traditional Mardi Gras buttery yeasted sweet cake, or make one with the excellent mix kit from King Arthur Flour. It includes the yeast cake mix, almond paste, white icing mix and decorating sugars.
BYO plastic baby: Per, tradition the person who gets the piece of cake with the baby (or coin, or other token) gets good luck all year!
IMPORTANT: Never bake anything plastic in a cake; it will melt and render the cake inedible (and for all we know, it can catch fire). The technique is: after the cake is baked and still warm (and more pliable), insert the good luck token into the cake from the underside, before icing.
Here’s more on the history of King Cake.
TO DRINK: MILK PUNCH
Milk punch is in the category of drinks made with milk or cream: Brandy Alexander, Classic Ramos Gin Fizz, Grasshopper, Irish Coffee, Mudslide, Pink Squirrel, White Russian, and many others (hey—another idea for a themed cocktail party: cream-based cocktails).
   These King Cakes were made from a mix kit from King Arthur Flour. The rectangular shape isn’t traditional, but you can be as creative as you like.
Milk punch combines brandy or bourbon* with milk, sugar and vanilla extract, typically garnished with grated nutmeg. It is served cold and usually has nutmeg sprinkled on top.
FOOD TRIVIA: sugar was added to cocktails to cover up the taste of the alcohol, as was milk.
 You can serve milk punch in whatever glasses you have (photo Michelle Banovic | Atwood Hotel | Chicago.  Don’t forget the nutmeg. We have a special nutmeg grater (like a peppermill for nutmeg); but you can use your Microplane (photo courtesy McCormick).
MILK PUNCH HISTORY
Milk punch was popularized in the 17th century by Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing. At the time, all types of punch were served from a punch bowl.
The milk punch of the era was made with cream curdled with lemon juice. Those recipes gave way to milk punches that use(d) fresh milk or cream, like egg nog—which is a milk punch enriched with eggs.
Milk punches—egg nog or other—became holiday and celebratory traditions (for example, Mardi Gras).
In modern-day New Orleans, milk punches vie as brunch drinks with the Bloody Mary, created in 1940 in New York City (Bloody Mary history).
There are as many recipes for milk punch as for anything else, but for Mardi Gras we serve up the recipe from Brennan’s, a favorite New Orleans restaurant since 1946.
For a 17th-century-type recipe, try Benjamin Franklin’s recipe. He used brandy and included lots of lemon juice (which curdled the milk).
MILK PUNCH RECIPES
This, and other cognac-based milk punches, often use Napoleon brandy, a designation for a brandy or cognac aged at least five years. Feel free to use VSOP; with all the cream and sugar, the nuances of the Napoleon will be covered up.
If you don’t like or don’t have brandy, you can substitute bourbon, rum, whiskey and even tequila.
RECIPE #1: BRENNAN’S BRANDY MILK PUNCH
Ingredients Per Drink
1. COMBINE the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. SHAKE vigorously and pour into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Garnish with nutmeg.
RECIPE #2: BRANDY MILK PUNCH
Here’s a recipe from New Orleans Online that uses more milk and less sugar.
Ingredients Per Drink
1. COMBINE the brandy, milk, and sugar with the ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, and shake until frothy (about 1 minute).
2. STRAIN into a double-old fashioned glass filled with cracked ice. Sprinkle with nutmeg and serve.
*Some people prefer gin, tequila or other spirit.
†We prefer less sweetness, so reduce the simple syrup.