After the Christmas and New Year's, it can seem like a long stretch before any more holidays with fun, delicious elements. And then we remember Mardi Gras, and more specifically, we remember the arrival of king cake. Even those who haven't made their way to New Orleans have likely seen king cakes in their local groceries and bakeries in early January.
While we may associate Fat Tuesday and the sweet cakes with beads and booze these days, the cake tradition started with Three Kings Day, a holiday that happens 12 days after Christmas. While there are tons of great Mardi Gras recipes out there, we love king cake the best. But what is a king cake, exactly, and what's the history behind it? Allow us to fill you in.
What's the meaning behind king cake?
The cake got its start a long, long time ago. We're talking the Middle Ages! The first king cakes were made in Europe in celebration of the Catholic Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day (January 6). For those of us who haven't visited a nativity scene in a while, a reminder: It's a celebration of the day when the three wise men were said to have visited baby Jesus and showered him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The French brought the cake with them to Louisiana in the 1870s, and all these years later, it's become synonymous with the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, and all the rest of those good things in New Orleans. But the cake is popular in lots of different cities and states. King cake is very much a seasonal cake—available in early January, at the beginning of carnival season, and then it goes away Ash Wednesday when everyone is giving up something for Lent.
What is king cake?
King cake is a ring of sweet pastry that's covered in lots of icing and purple, yellow, and green sprinkles. Some folks make their king cake more like a bread and others prefer a more cake-y version—there's no right way. Most are usually flavored vanilla, cinnamon, or some cream cheesy combo. But they're always round with a hollowed out center—think of it like a crown that you could put on your head if you were feeling particularly festive.
On the outside, king cake is usually covered with a delicious icing and oodles and oodles of green, purple, and yellow sprinkles. Those colors aren't random. The green symbolizes faith; purple stands for power; and yellow represents justice. Oh—and there's always a tiny plastic baby hidden in there too.
Why is there a plastic baby in a king cake?
Don't worry! It's not that little, so there's no fear that you're going to eat it without knowing. The plastic baby just makes eating king cake more fun. In fact, it kind of makes it a sport. Everyone wants to find that little baby. Some say the little baby is Baby Jesus, and others just think of him as a symbol of luck or prosperity. Whomever gets the slice with the baby is "crowned" king or queen for the day and is said to be on his or her way to a very good year. So not only do you get to eat cake, but you basically have a shot at becoming royalty, if only for one day.
How do you make a king cake?
You could make it from scratch—there are tons of recipes online that can meet almost all needs and skill levels, but the basics remain the same. You whip up a sweet brioche dough and then plop in a ton of cinnamon and/or a flavorful cream cheese filling, twist the dough into a ring, and then bake it. Don't forget to drop in the tiny plastic baby! After it's baked and completely cooled, you pile on the icing and a lot of sprinkles. But note: It might take up to four hours for you to make this cake from scratch.
Not up to making one from scratch? You absolutely could buy a king cake mix, or buy one ready-made too.
Where do I buy king cake?
For those of us who would rather buy than bake, there are options! As mentioned—no matter where you live—many bakeries and grocery stores across the U.S. will have them on hand during the carnival season. But if you're jonesing for a Louisiana-style king cake and you either a) don't live in Louisiana; or b) don't have time to visit Louisiana to simply buy a cake, you're in luck. Lots of bakeries will ship it straight to your front door. Try Manny Randazzo or Haydel's Bakery for a super delicious Louisiana-made treat.
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