King cake, a colorfully decorated sweet circular pastry or cake, is the showpiece for Mardi Gras throughout New Orleans. This year’s celebration began January 6 on Twelfth Night (Epiphany) and continues to March 1, known as Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. During this time, king cakes sell briskly, and many bakeries have their own special versions.
The name “king cake” refers to the Three Kings who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus on the Twelfth Night. While local bakeries put their creative imprint on their cakes, including sweet fillings and various decorations, three symbolic characteristics distinguish this cake: Its twisted ring shape is said to resemble a crown. The cake is decorated with the colors of Mardi Gras: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. A small baby is hidden inside the cake. Whoever ends up with the cake slice containing the baby is king (or queen) for the day and hosts the next Mardi Gras party.
Some say the baby inside the cake symbolizes Jesus, but culinary historian and native New Orleanian, Liz Williams says this is not necessarily so. “Dating back to Medieval times, the Europeans had a tradition of putting trinkets in cakes starting with dried fava beans, known as feves in French.”
Williams recalls that the New Orleans bakery McKenzie’s first popularized the baby trinket which was originally bisque or biscuit porcelain, giving them a realistic finish. Over time, inexpensive plastic babies replaced porcelain ones. These days, some bakers place the plastic figurine on the outside of the baked cake to alleviate concerns about baking a piece of plastic in the cake in case someone might accidentally swallow the trinket.
The French brought their Galette des Rois to New Orleans in the 1870s. In Spain, another influence on New Orleans, the cake is known as Rosca de Reyes. Other Catholic countries have their versions.
But, Mardi Gras king cake, like the city itself, takes the festive spirit and celebration to a royal level. And just as soon as the cakes start appearing after January 6, they disappear after Ash Wednesday. Some have tried to lengthen king cake season, but, says Williams, New Orleanians stick to their cherished traditions.
Here are a few recommended by New Orleans industry colleagues:
This bakery is owned by Huong Tran and her husband, who immigrated to New Orleans from Vietnam and established the bakery more than 30 years ago. Duong Phuong was named a James Beard Foundation Awards “Classic” in 2018. Many say their king cake is one of the city’s best.
Three generations have overseen Haydel’s Bakery. The selection of king cakes ranges from traditional, some still with a porcelain baby, to creative – iced in the black and gold colors of the New Orleans Saints or shaped like a fleur de Lys.
Brennan’s offers both traditional and creative king cakes, including this year’s Bananas Foster King Cake in celebration of the restaurant’s 75th anniversary. (The feature photo above is a Brennan’s king cake).
This 70+ year bakery makes a traditional cinnamon-laced king cake decorated with colored icing and sugar. Customers can order additional decorated touches like feather boas and beads.
Second generation baker, Manny Randazzo uses a family recipe for his king cakes which come plain (traditional) or stuffed with sweet cream cheese.
Family-run Caluda’s sells wholesale and retail and offers both tradition king cake and versions filled with praline or strawberry cream cheese.
Lines form early at Bywater Bakery owned by Chaya Conrad, who formerly served as Bakery Manager at Whole Foods and Rouses. Bywater Bakery’s king cakes are wildly creative with different fillings.
Outside New Orleans
New Orleans native, Chef David Guas, owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee House & Eatery in Arlington, Virginia, serves a menu of Louisiana specialties year-round. He goes all out with Mardi Gras king cakes and even ships a Mardi Gras in a box nationwide.
Find David Guas’ king cake recipe from his cookbook, Dam Good Sweet: Desserts To Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style in the “Recipes” section of this issue.
What wines to pair with king cake?
Italy’s Moscato d’Asti is a lightly sweet, aromatic frizzante style wine with delicate stone fruit notes that will complement, and not overpower, the cake’s cinnamon and sugar. Try Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato D’Asti DOCG.
Another Italian contender from Piemonte is Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG, a semi-sweet, frizzante red wine with ripe strawberry and raspberry notes that balances well with the richer fillings found in some king cakes. Suggest: Alasia Brachetto d’Acqui or Banfi Rosa Regale.
Keeping it French, consider a demi-sec Champagne like Laurent-Perrier Harmony, a Chardonnay dominant blend with notes of dried apricot, alm onds and honey.
Sweet Red. 2016 King Cake Dessert Wine was envisioned by Tulane University alumni, Ames Morison, cofounder of Medlock Ames Winery in Alexander Valley, CA. Made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon this wine imparts flavors of fresh-baked blackberry and boysenberry pie with a finish of dried figs. This is another good option for king cakes with rich fillings.