King Cakes: A New Orleans Staple With Long History; Here’s Where to Find Them

When you’re in New Orleans, you have no shortage of sweets to try out.

From pralines to bananas Foster, and bread pudding to snowballs, the calorie-filled options seem endless. However, amidst these tempting choices, one dessert reigns supreme. Yes, I’m talking about the King Cake.

But what’s the tale behind this iconic confection? And what’s the significance of the tiny plastic baby nestled within? How does it intertwine with the traditions of Mardi Gras?

If you’re as intrigued as I was, join me as we delve into the origins and intricacies of the King Cake, unraveling its story piece by piece.

King Cake history

The King Cake, with its sweet, cinnamon-infused taste and festive glazed exterior, has a rich history deeply rooted in European traditions, possibly linked to the Roman Saturnalia celebration, where gift-giving and feasting were central to the festivities.

At some point — perhaps during the Middle Ages — the cakes became associated with the celebration of “Epiphany,” which is also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day.

This is the Biblical story where three wise men or “Magi” visit the infant Jesus, bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas.

In France, the cake, known as “galette des rois” or “king’s cake,” was originally a simple round cake made of puff pastry with a hidden bean or trinket inside. The person who found the hidden object in their slice would be crowned king or queen for the day.

Over time, the King Cake made its way over to Louisiana and became intertwined with the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras, which culminate on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

The timing of Epiphany, with its rich tradition of cake-sharing made it a natural fit for inclusion in the broader Mardi Gras celebrations.

The cake’s association with royalty, stemming from the tradition of crowning a “king” or “queen” for finding the hidden object, also resonated with the festive and flamboyant atmosphere of Mardi Gras.

In Louisiana, where Mardi Gras is celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, and other revelries, the King Cake soon became an integral part of the festivities.

As Mardi Gras evolved and grew in popularity throughout Louisiana and beyond, so did the King Cake tradition, albeit with some modifications.

Instead of a puff pastry, the Louisiana King Cake is often made from a rich, sweet dough similar to brioche or cinnamon roll dough. It is typically decorated with purple, green, and gold icing/sprinkles, representing justice, faith, and power, respectively.

They also modified the friendly little choking hazard, changing it from a bean to a small figurine representing the baby Jesus, which is usually made of plastic. Some bakeries also throw in a commemorative porcelain figurine that acts like more of a collectors item.

This little naked baby may be hidden in the cake at the time of purchase (look for the warnings) or it might be placed in the middle for you to hide within your cake.

The idea is that whoever finds the baby Jesus in their slice of king cake is sort of the “winner.” Winner of what you ask? Some say that person is destined to have good luck for the next year (I like this version) but others say they are expected to host the next King Cake party or buy the next King Cake (I don’t like this version).

While some debate what it means to “find the baby” many would say that if any part of the baby is sticking out the cake after you slice it — you’ve found it!

Another rule of sorts applies to the knife.

You also need to be mindful of the knife used, apparently. Some local traditions mandate that you use only one single knife to cut up the cake and you leave it in the box even if it takes you multiple days to finish it. Otherwise, it’s bad juju or something.

The jury is still out on whether or not that requires daily cleaning but then again, hopefully your King Cake won’t last more than a day.

Today, the King Cake has become a beloved symbol of Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana and beyond, with bakeries and households eagerly anticipating its arrival each year. It’s not just a dessert but a cherished tradition.

Traditional king cake with baby

Where to find King Cakes in New Orleans

When in New Orleans you should be able to find a King Cake year round.

However, it might take some trial and error.

Some of the best bakeries known for King Cakes like Manny Randazzo King Cakes only make them from about Christmas through Mardi Gras. After that, your options may be more limited but you can head to places like Haydel’s and Gambino’s any time of the year.

One thing that you will find after searching around New Orleans is that there are a lot of varieties of King Cakes.

People use different recipes, different types of sweet toppings, and decorations. Around certain holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day or Easter you may find holiday themed King Cakes like the one I brought home to my family below.

Easter king cake

One of my favorite varieties of King Cake comes from Maurice French Pastries located in Metairie, Louisiana (just next-door to New Orleans). It’s a wonderful French bakery and they serve these brilliant King Cakes that are cut in half and then stuffed and topped with swirls of cream, fresh strawberries, and sliced almonds. It’s a very different spin from the traditional but it’s just amazing as you can tell.

Strawberries and cream king cake

You also have Queen Cakes made famous by Antoine’s Famous Cakes, located in Metairie (but also found just across that big river in Gretna).

Queen Cakes come with different types of fillings within the cake and are a pretty big departure from the traditional King Cake. These fillings can range from classic flavors like cream cheese, cinnamon, and fruit preserves to more decadent options such as chocolate ganache, praline, or even savory ingredients like bacon and cheese.

Antoine’s is also known for their unique take on the beignet as they serve up these delicious glazed beignets that are a perfect hybrid between donuts and beignets. You will not be able to resist the sweet crunchiness of these things!

So the next time you partake in eating King Cake, think about the centuries of tradition that you are enjoying as you are scouting slices for that that baby! And don’t forget to keep that knife in the box!

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