Strudels, pastries and European-style cakes are what Jacob and Katrina Dimmer had in mind 46 years ago when starting their German-style bakery in Arvada, Colo. These delectable offerings haven't changed over the years. What has changed is that now their son, Ed, and his wife, Maro, have expanded Rheinlander Bakery's offerings to include King Cakes, whose sales each year benefit a Hurricane Katrina relief fund in eastern Mississippi.
"We do a lot of local fundraisers for the schools and other charities. But when Hurricane Katrina happened and we saw the devastation, we wanted to help," Maro says. Together, the Dimmers came up with the idea of a King Cake Fundraiser.
"It is about giving back. We named the fundraiser 'King Cakes for Katrina' because gift giving is tied into the concept of the King Cake tradition," Ed says.
The King Cake is named for the three kings or wise men who bore gifts to the Christ Child on Twelfth Night. After the cake is baked, traditional bakers insert a nut, a jewel or, since the mid-20th century, a tiny plastic baby representing the Christ Child, into the bottom of the cake. Each guest takes a piece of the cake, hoping to get the piece with the trinket. The person who receives it is crowned king or queen for the day and is said to have good fortune for the coming year.
Good fortune is just what the Dimmers have had with their King Cakes. The bakery went from selling a few dozen before Katrina to selling 700 to 800 cakes after introducing the fundraiser. Proceeds from the first fundraiser in 2006 were donated to the Katrina Fund for the Red Cross. From 2007 to 2009, the Dimmers focused their efforts on a United Way project called REM, or Rebuild East Mississippi, and more than $6,600 of King Cake proceeds helped to rebuild houses and churches and aided evacuees in the area.
"We are proud that the fundraiser was instrumental in helping REM complete its important work. For the 2010 donation, we will make a donation either to another Katrina project sponsored by United Way or to the hurricane fund of the Red Cross, because there's lots to be done yet," Maro says.
In addition to King Cakes, whose primary season is Twelfth Night through Ash Wednesday, the Dimmers make Hot Cross Buns, a spiced bun or little cake tied to the Lenten season. Though originally associated with pagan customs, the buns were adopted by the Christian church during early missionary efforts in England. The priests interpreted the "cross" of icing that adorns the bun to signify the crucifixion of Christ.
Though Hot Cross Buns are one of Ed's "several hundred favorites" from the bakery's repertoire, his eyes sparkle when talking about King Cakes. "Our commitment is that 10 percent of the proceeds from the King Cakes are donated as a cash donation to the project," he says. "At the same time, we try to bring out public awareness of the whole concept of helping your neighbor, even if your neighbor is farther away, as in this case, Mississippi."
Traditional Treats for Mardi Gras and Lent
The Feast of Epiphany, also known as King's Day or Twelfth Night, celebrates the three wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child 12 days after Christmas. The baking of the King Cake is believed to have originated in France in the 12th century as an homage to the three kings. When French colonists settled in New Orleans, they brought the tradition with them.
After the Civil War, a group called the "Twelfth Night Revelers" heralded the start of the carnival or Mardi Gras season (Twelfth Night to Ash Wednesday) with a King Cake as the main attraction. In New Orleans, the first cake of the season was served on Jan. 6 and once a week thereafter until Marti Gras Day. Whoever found the figurine of the Christ Child in the cake was expected to host the following week's King Cake party.
The colors of the King Cake represent justice (purple), faith (green) and power (gold).
Hot Cross Buns
In Tudor times (the 15th and 16th centuries), English law prohibited the sale of spiced buns except during Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and at burials. Early accounts describe spiced buns as quite a treat in the diets of those who consumed mostly coarse, whole-grain breads as their primary grain source.
Traditionally the spiced buns known as Hot Cross Buns were made from a rich yeast dough of rare white flour, with a sprinkling of currants plus a dash of spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. These sweet and spicy buns became a favorite food offered during religious rituals, most specifically on the holy day of Good Friday.
The sign of the cross fashioned in icing across the top of the buns symbolizes "birth and rebirth" as in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
How to Make Colored Sugar
If you cannot find colored sugar at the grocery store, you can make your own.
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 to 2 drops each of green, yellow, red and blue food coloring
Combine 1/2 cup sugar and a drop of green coloring in a jar. Place lid on jar, and shake vigorously to mix the color with sugar. Repeat with yellow coloring. To make purple sugar, use 1 drop red and 1 drop blue with 1/2 cup sugar. You'll have about half the colored sugars left over.
Don't want to make your own?
Order King Cakes from the Rheinlander Bakery any time of the year, though those ordered between Jan. 6 and Feb. 12 will benefit "King Cakes for Katrina." Hot Cross Buns are available seasonally and may be ordered this year through Easter. Contact Rheinlander Bakery, 5721 Olde Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, CO 80002, (303) 467-1810, rheinlanderbakery.com.