PICAYUNE, MS (RNN) - Although New Orleans is the heart of Mardi Gras, there's a bakery east of the Crescent City in Mississippi that's well known for cooking up a twisted version of the carnival's most desired food - the king cake.
"We've got a lot of customers from New Orleans," owner of Paul's Pastry Shop Sherri Paul-Thigpen said.
Over the past 40 years, the family-owned bakery's wholesale and online cake sales have ballooned the business's footprint to nearly 12 times its original size.
"We wholesale our king cakes to 40 stores during the Mardi Gras season," Paul-Thigpen said.
During the Mardi Gras season alone, Paul's 48 employees push out 54,000 king cakes, making it UPS's No. 1 shipper in Mississippi during January and February.
The family-owned bakery first opened in 1970 after moving from California to Picayune, MS, about 45 miles east of New Orleans.
After two years of requests from friends and customers, the family began experimenting with the king cake. Since 1972 the bakery has been serving up its own version of the Mardi Gras staple - a sweet bread-based cake with its own flavorful twist.
Traditionally, the king cake is an iced cinnamon roll-like Danish topped with yellow, purple and green sugar - but that's not Paul's way.
At the time the bakery was experimenting with the cakes, they were making breads stuffed with meat, leading to the idea of stuffing the king cake with filling.
"We made a lot of different kinds of cakes, so we thought it would be fun to make different flavors of king cakes," she said.
The filling led to another key change - the dough. Paul's cake starts with a sweet bread recipe because the traditional king cake dough would not hold a filling during baking.
Paul's experimental nature has expanded the menu, now offering 40 different flavors of king cakes, year 'round, for all occasions.
Specialty flavors include: the Berry Deluxe Combo, filled with a mix of blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries on top of a layer of cream cheese; Mississippi Mud, filled with walnuts, and chocolate cream; and Pecan Praline, filled with cream cheese, maple, brown sugar and pecans.
In addition to the specialty flavors, the bakery offers several traditional flavors that can be used to make custom combinations, including: apple, blueberry, cinnamon, lemon, raspberry, strawberry and cream cheese, cream cheese (all flavors are available with cream cheese).
If you order one of Paul's king cakes online, some assembly is required. That's because the cake ships with its sugar, glaze, beads and doubloons packaged separately.
The bakery passes the decorating on to you because the humidity in South Mississippi would turn a decorated cake into a rock during shipment, Paul-Thigin explained.
The king cake is traditionally decorated in three colors: green, representing faith; purple, representing justice and gold, representing the voice of power.
A plastic baby, representing the Christ child, is also included in the symbolic decorations, hidden in the middle of the cake. The person who finds the baby has good fortune for the rest of the year and has to provide the next king cake for the group, Paul-Thigpin said.
Paul's Pastry Shop king cakes have become a major part of the Mardi Gras tradition.
Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," falls 40 days before Easter. The parades, balls and parties that precede Fat Tuesday begin 12 days after Christmas each year on the Feast of the Epiphany.
This year's Fat Tuesday celebrations will be held March 8. The following day, Ash Wednesday, signals the beginning of the Lent season, a 40-day period of self-sacrifice and reflection before Easter Sunday.
While New Orleans is the home of one of the largest carnival seasons in the world, don't expect Paul's Pastry Shop to open in The Big Easy.
"I'm not interested in getting into the New Orleans area," Paul-Thigpin said. "Mississippi's is a little more spaced out."