The intersection between the secular and the religious is a fair starting block for any exploration of beloved holiday traditions, and the Mardi Gras king cake tradition is no exception. However, though the Christmas tree, Easter Bunny, and Halloween costumes are pagan icons that became attached over time to religious or spiritual celebrations, the king cake is an example of a Christian relic that became intertwined with the festival of Mardi Gras, itself a Christian/Catholic tradition, though one whose practice has taken a decidedly left turn, especially in the Big Easy. (A left turn down Bourbon St., one might add.)
To begin, what is a king cake? The recognized version in New Orleans is more of an iced bread than a cake, or what might be considered a coffee cake. “A traditional king cake tastes like a cross between a coffee cake and a cinnamon roll. It should be moist, but not dense and include cinnamon throughout,” say Maggie Robert and Alessandra Madrid of the New Orleans lifestyle blog Babes & Beignets. A king cake is made from a yeasted dough, scented or rolled with cinnamon and shaped into a ring, then coated with a simple sugar icing and decorated with sprinkles in the official colors of Mardi Gras: purple, green, and gold. (For “justice, faith, and power.”) A plastic baby figurine is hidden within the cake, and the person whose slice contains it receives both privileges and responsibilities. A brightly colored bread-cake with a hidden figurine? Naturally, there’s lots to unpack here.
In the midst of the colorful parades, beads, cocktails, and general debauchery, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans’ Mardi Gras itself is, at its core, a celebration related to Lent. “Fat Tuesday” occurs as a permissive day of indulgence before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and reflection before Easter. (Mostly as a kid I spent most of my time reflecting on how much I missed the chocolate I had been forced to give up.) In the modern American celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the permissive element has certainly been magnified (apparently the day got mixed up along the way with a previous Roman celebration of fertility, ahem), but it stands as no surprise that a French pastry with a religious origin should have a role in it.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that the pastry itself has root in a different holiday: that is, Christmas. This perhaps explains both the name, and the baby. According to Manny Randazzo Original King Cakes, one of the foremost bakeries of the form in New Orleans: “The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th or the ‘Twelfth Night,’ also known to Christians as the ‘Epiphany.’ Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means ‘to show.’ Jesus first showed himself to the three wise men (i.e. Kings) and to the world on this day. As a symbol of this Holy Day, a tiny plastic baby is placed inside each King Cake.”
The cake itself was developed in France several centuries ago as a symbolic “lure” for the three kings; a yearly celebration of their arrival. It is thought to have been introduced to New Orleans, along with other elements of French culture, in the late 1800s, though Roberts and Madrid point out that “the New Orleans and Louisiana cakes have evolved into what they are today and are not very similar in taste or appearance to those you will still find in regions of Europe.” For a taste of the original, see the Babes & Beignets French King Cake recipe. That there is a king as well of Mardi Gras, honored in the largest parade sponsored by the Krewe of Rex, made it especially co-optable for the circumstance. It is this king that knighted the Nola king cake with its tri-colored cloak of sprinkles.
King cakes continue to be a huge part of the baking industry in New Orleans for the first couple of months of the year. As described on the Babes & Beignets blog, “In Nola, there is no break between the holiday diet and king cake season.” Additionally, say Roberts and Madrid, “King Cakes can be enjoyed all day, every day. People usually bring them to their offices and schools to share with their coworkers or classmates and whoever gets the king cake baby has to bring the next king cake! We also enjoy them at gatherings that take place during Mardi Gras: from meetups to make Mardi Gras costumes and throws, to get togethers-hosted solely for the purpose of tasting the various types of king cakes, to on the actual parade routes!”
Famous New Orleans purveyors of the treat include the aforementioned Manny Randazzo, as well as Joe Gambino’s, Paul’s, Haydel’s, and Poupart’s. Roberts and Madrid also put Dong Phuong Bakeshop and Sucre on their list of favorites.
Many of these have mail-order options for your Mardi Gras celebrations, whether you err on the side of sacred or sacrilegious. Or if you’re up to the task of full immersion, try our Mardi Gras King Cake recipe.
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