As denizens of the Lower South, we’re all familiar with king cakes (gâteau des Rois). These big, sweet rings of braided yeast dough appear in bakeries soon after Epiphany (Kings’ Day; in reference to the “Three Kings of Orient”) and proliferate up until Ash Wednesday. While most are cinnamon-y and iced, more elaborate commercial examples are festooned with beads, scattered with sugar sprinkles and impregnated with a small plastic baby (homemade king cakes usually have the more traditional bean, a symbol of fertility).
Less familiar to us are queen cakes, which are English in origin and not specific to any season. Queen cakes are basically small pound cakes; the only essential ingredient aside from the requisite eggs, flour, butter and sugar is currents. Recipes for queen cakes began appearing sometime in the late 17th century and early 18th centuries, after the Glorious Revolution (1688). During that time, with the exception of the six years (1694-1702) when William III occupied the throne alone, his wife (and first cousin) Mary II and her sister Queen Anne (1702-14) ruled Great Britain as queens regnant (sovereigns in their own right). Unsurprisingly, queen cakes enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the reign of Victoria, but not during the reign of Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, who is also a queen regnant. Queen cakes are traditionally larger than cupcakes, baked in ribbed patty-pans instead of cupcake tins.
Again, the essential ingredient in any queen cake is, unfortunately for us, currants. Currants (black and red; white currants are a relatively new cultivar) have been used in European cooking for centuries, and were popular in this country up until the early 20th century when currants, as vectors for white blister pine rust (WBPR), were banned under federal law in 1911 (a ban later relegated to state jurisdiction) as a threat to the logging industry (the same industry largely responsible for the illegalization of hemp because Cannabis sativa is a cheap, renewable source for the production of paper). In 1999 horticultural activist Greg Quinn of Staatsburg, New York, was instrumental in proving that currants, though a proven vector, were not the actual agent in the spread of the pine rust (turns out imported white pine seedlings were the culprits), and in 2003, the State of New York legalized growing currants; the legal use of medical marijuana began this past month in the state.
But because the currant production and shipment is still prohibited in many other states as well as in some specific local jurisdictions despite the development of WBPR-resistant varieties, you’re likely not going to find real currants (dried or otherwise) in stores; what you most often will find are Zante currants, dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape ‘Black Corinth’ (Vitis vinifera), named after the island of Zakynthos (Zante) which was once a major producer and exporter. In other words, Zante currants are raisins, but given they’re the best alternative you can usually get, use them without guilt, or for that matter any raisin you like.
Make queen cakes with your favorite pound cake recipe. Add your currants (such as they are) liberally, but toss them with a bit of corn starch first, since they tend to clump. You can flavor the batter if you like; vanilla or almond flavoring, for instance, but I wouldn’t range as far afield as citrus or cocoa. Cool completely and dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with a glaze before serving.