What is a king cake? Follow the pastry's journey from biblical symbol to Mardi Gras staple

·6-min read
Plastic baby aside, eating a colorful king cake for Mardi Gras is a cinnamon-sugary tradition. (Photo: Getty Creative)Plastic baby aside, eating a colorful king cake for Mardi Gras is a cinnamon-sugary tradition. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Plastic baby aside, eating a colorful king cake for Mardi Gras is a cinnamon-sugary tradition. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. No matter what you call it, one thing is certain: The annual holiday arrives each year with utter excess in the form of glitzy costumes, elaborate parade floats, lots of beads and some sweet treats.

The New Orleans tradition dates back to 1699 but became a commercial holiday in the late 19th century as a way to amp up New Orleans tourism. Now a bona fide cultural phenomenon, the Carnival season is a time to indulge before the start of Lent, the 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter.

And what's the perfect thing to gorge yourself on before the fasting begins? For the people of New Orleans, it's king cake.

What is a king cake?

The king cake is a sweet pastry now synonymous with Mardi Gras, but it's taken on various forms over its hundreds of years in existence. Stuffed with a surprise trinket hidden within, king cake's roots go all the way back to pre-Roman times. Eventually, the wreath-shaped brioche-style pastry would make its way to France where it's known as a galette des rois. Later, French influence in New Orleans would bring the colorful pastry to the forefront of Mardi Gras menus.

Louisiana-based chef Mike Turner is a restaurant veteran who now serves as senior vice president of culinary and supply chain for Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux, a chain rooted in Baton Rouge. Well-versed in the vibrant flavors and history of Louisiana's cuisine, Turner explains, "the cakes are closely related to the story of the wise men who visited Christ on the Epiphany."

The name 'king cake' is derived from those three kings of biblical fame.

"The king cake tradition was brought to New Orleans from France in the 1800s and has become a longstanding tradition in all of Louisiana," Turner tells Yahoo Life.

When are king cakes available?

A nod to the region's French roots, the king cake immediately exploded in the culinary scene. King cake season officially begins on Epiphany, a Christian feast day in January marking the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Carnival. This period of feasting runs until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.

"In the past, the cakes were stuffed with gifts — coins, beans, pecans and the plastic baby — which is the most popular now during Carnival season," says Turner.

During a bleak time in history, it's said that Romans would make a human sacrifice of the person who found the bean hidden in the cake. Thankfully, that tradition has been adapted over the years and a plastic baby symbolizing Jesus is the most popular item found inside, representing good fortune. When the king cake made its way to Mardi Gras celebration balls in New Orleans, whoever found the stuffed item would be responsible for hosting the following year's ball. That tradition continues today.

While different king cake varieties remain throughout the world, those associated with Mardi Gras are described by Turner as "a cross between a French pastry and a coffee cake."

Served oval-shaped as a braided wreath made from cinnamon-infused brioche dough, king cakes are baked and topped with colorful icing in the Mardi Gras colors of gold, green and purple — representing power, faith and justice. Fillings are also common, including both cream and fruit centers.

So, where can you find Turner's favorite version? The chef's favorite king cake comes from Manny Randazzo's King Cakes, a purist favorite since 1965 that draws crowds and receives worldwide acclaim. King cakes are commonly only sold during Carnival until Fat Tuesday, but some bakeries have started selling them year-round because of demand, ushering in heated debates about when king cakes should and should not be available.

What makes a good king cake?

The king cake has become so popular with New Orleans locals and tourists alike that there are dozens of bakeries in New Orleans dishing out the creation. King Cakes by Brennan distributes both locally in New Orleans and ships nationwide. The acclaimed bakery tells Yahoo Life that they sell an estimated 20,000 cakes during each Carnival. Each anticipated season they offer three varieties, including traditional and pink parade king cake and a specialty flavor: this year's being bananas foster.

In modern times, inspired twists on the king cake have made their way onto the menus of several local bakeries. "Nor Joe Imports has a cannoli king cake that is amazing," shares culture and food writer Marielle Songy, a New Orleans native. "While it isn't traditional, it's a tasty spin."

For a traditional king cake, Songy says she expects the flavors of cinnamon to pop and prefers it to be topped with a thick sugary icing.

No longer a regional secret thanks to social media, the New Orleans style king cake has exploded into the global arena. There are over 50 million views associated with king cakes on TikTok alone. TikToker Lanie (AKA @neworlainz) shares with her followers the city's best spots to dine and drink, and has recently taken on the responsibility of serving as a bit of a king cake educator.

Interest in king cakes inspired the New Orleans-based foodie to start a series where she tries the most popular cakes and rates them. "I did the series because king cake is such a big part of Mardi Gras but people from other places don't always know about it or have't had one," Lanie, who keeps her last name private, tells Yahoo Life. "People from here have a very strong opinion on which is best."

Louisiana-based baker Bethany Verdin took baking on professionally a few years ago to cope with the stresses of her job as a paramedic. Through her business, Leaning Pine Farmstead, she sells her homemade king cakes nationwide all year long.

The key to an excellent king cake? Verdin says it's all about texture and filling.

"A king cake should be soft, fluffy and have a buttery texture," she says. "My personal feeling about the cakes being filled is that the filling should be freshly made and baked inside with the cake rather than being injected [after baking]. It keeps the cake more authentic and the flavors of the filling infuse the cake."

Can you bake a king cake at home?

Verdin's top tip for the aspiring at-home baker? "The dough should be soft — almost sticky — but be sure not to use too much flour when rolling the dough," she offers, cautioning against over-flouring. "That way when pinching the seams shut the dough will stay supple and not part when baking to keep the filling from leaking out."

Verdin also says she likes to add a pinch of sea salt to the icing to help cut some of its sweetness and add a depth of flavor.

So, what's in a name? Or in this case a king cake? Those in the know say a mix of Old World European roots, a sense of hometown pride and lots of cinnamon and sugar.

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