King Cakes are one of Mardi Gras season’s most celebrated traditions. But do you know why?
For most Americans, January is a time to resolve to eat healthier and cut back on the excess of a gluttonous holiday season, but in party-loving New Orleans, the first week of January marks the arrival of King Cake season, a culinary tradition that predates even the annual Mardi Gras celebration itself. Between January 6 (Three King’s Day) and Fat Tuesday, bakeries across Louisiana and Southeast Texas produce thousands of King Cakes, resplendently decorated in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.
What is a King Cake?
King cakes come in many flavors and sizes, but at their core, they are a round, braided coffee cake with one commonality. They all have a bean, or, in more modern times, a plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever finds the surprise is declared king for the day and said to become the host of next year’s celebration. One Mardi Gras organization even uses a King Cake to choose the queen of its annual ball itself.
Cinnamon is the most traditional flavor, but creative new variations have popped up in recent years. Now available with both sweet and savory fillings, there is everything from fruit and cheese to meat, boudin, praline, and even bourbon as they grow in popularity and bakeries get more innovative.
Regional Variations and International Influence
The New Orleans tradition of celebrating the three Magi feast with a special cake is rooted in European culture. As far back as the first half of the sixteenth century, France commemorated King’s Day, which falls twelve days after Christmas, with a Twelfth Night cake. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV took part in at least one Twelfth Night festival where a bean or ceramic figure was hidden in the cake, also known as a gateau des Rois.
The Twelfth Night cake custom is still widely observed in France, where families and friends gather around one of the different cakes served at King cake soirees. In some regions, the Couronne is made from brioche dough and topped with a fruit-festooned sugar glaze. In Paris and larger cities, a fancier galette filled with frangipane (almond cream paste) is preferred. The guest who receives the piece with a trinket hidden inside picks a consort. Then the pair, who will host the next King’s Day Party, is crowned with the gold and silver wreaths that adorn the cake.
France’s brioche-like Couronne was the major influence of today’s King Cake, when Creoles, colonials of French and Spanish descendants in New Orleans, adopted the French Twelfth Night cake and blended it with the Spanish tradition of throwing a grand ball on the Twelfth Night. By the end of the eighteenth century, party-loving colonists had extended the tradition into an entire season of balls, which started on the Twelfth Night and ended on Mardi Gras. The King and Queen were chosen the first night by finding the bean and were then responsible for throwing the next ball.
Where You Can Get King Cakes in The Area
Rao’s Bakery & Coffee Café
The unofficial King Cake headquarters in SETX, Rao’s ships thousands of King Cakes around the country come Mardi Gras season. Established in 1941, they’re the oldest Italian bakery in the area with a plethora of tasty treats. King cakes are available in small or large with multiple filling options - Strawberry Cream Cheese, Blueberry Cream Cheese, Raspberry Cream Cheese, Traditional Cinnamon, Voodoo, Peanut Butter Fudge, and a special LSU Tiger cake.
Sugar Momma Confections
Located in the cutest building in downtown Groves, Sugar Momma is the place to satisfy a sweet tooth. They also go all out for King Cake Season with flavors like blueberry, apple, chocolate, and lemon, plus specialty variations like Bananas Foster, Pecan Praline Cheesecake, and Reese’s. But it’s the boudin with jalapeno jelly, or boudin topped with pepper jack cheese, queso Blanco, bacon, and oyster crackers that really make a splash. There’s also a Breakfast Royale variation that includes boudin, cheese, bacon, egg, and queso for a sweet and savory morning treat.
Cake Turners, LLC
Another bakery that’s gotten into the King Cake game, Cake Turners in Lumberton, has specialty King Cake flavors like cookies and cream, boudin with maple bacon, Bailey's Irish cream, Zulu and turtle, plus traditional fruit and cream options like pineapple, strawberry, chocolate, Bavarian and more in three sizes.