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Vive le Roi: The Story of the King Cake of New Orleans

Photo above used with great thanks to Bobby_emm; photo below left used with great thanks to flicka23.
This week, January 6th marked the end of Christmas, and to many, the beginning of that dull season known as "just winter"; no holidays to look forward to, justdark days and cold nights. Right? Well, not if you're in New Orleans, because over in the land of voodoo and jazz, January 6th marked not only the Epiphany but also the countown to Mardi Gras, and to cake lovers, the beginning of King Cake Season. King Cakes are a cake so garish (decked out in gold, purple and green frosting and garnished with a paper crown) that you can't help but smile; but what is the story behind this rich, vibrant treat? We recently got in a New Orleans state of mind and did some research into the "Brave cake" that has inspirations dating back to Ancient Rome; here's what we discovered:


The King Cake is a direct US descendant of the French gateau des rois (not to be confused with the gallette des rois, which has a puff pastry base and frangipane filling, as opposed to the filled-brioche style of what became the King Cake) from France, part of the feast of the Epiphany. Why the royal name? Well, it takes its name from the three kings of biblical lore, going along with the idea that the twelfth day of Christmas, when the three kings arrived bearing gifts for the young Christ, there was much celebration and merrymaking to be made. Afterward, part of the tradition became to crown a "mock" king of celebrations, the king being whoever came across a trinket (originally a bean) in the cake at the festivities. The bean custom seems to have been borrowed / inspired by the Saturnalia festival of the Roman Empire. The Epiphany celebration became a celebration of the new year, a fruitful harvest, and healthy year ahead; it is also a forefather of the modern Mardi Gras, a necessary bit of excess and evil before the solemn days of Lent. 

Really, the New Orleans version of the cake embodies the celebration and excess that is Mardi Gras: the twisted-bread / brioche style cake is frequently filled (and in our opinion, at its best!) with rich cream cheese or praline, and topped with sugar icing in traditional purple, green and gold carnival colors which represent justice, faith and power (respectively) . The finished product is extremely colorful, rich, and extremely sweet. These days, the treat is so popular that some people in the New Orleans area have "king cake" parties every week (an excellent tradition!). But back to that little figurine: why is it a baby now, rather than a bean? Some say is to represent the young Christ of the epiphany; however, we like this explanation so much better: "a local bakery chain got a large shipment of such plastic dolls from Hong Kong very cheaply in the 1950's and had to use them up and there is no more signifigance than that." Who knows the real truth, but hey, it makes a good story.


But regardless of the meaning of the baby, they're still highly covetable little miracles: just as with the older versions of the cake, whoever finds it in their piece is declared the king or queen of the party, and gets to wear the crown with which the cake is often served. And while it's good to be king or queen--royal duties will include leading the drinking and merriment, and the ability to command others to act upon your whim--don't despair if you don't get the coveted bean or baby. Aside from saving precious tooth enamel, the king or queen is frequently appointed to either pay for the night's drinking, or  buy the cake and host the party the next time.

Long live the king, indeed.

Want to try making your own King Cake? Well, it seems like a serious undertaking, but we spied an authentic recipe at nolacuisine.comVegans need not despair; Melisser the Urban Housewife suggested a vegan recipe too, which can be found at pakupaku.info. Thanks Melisser!

Still want more? Why not check out Cakespy's King Cake painting (complete with mini baby!), now available at jessieoleson.etsy.com!


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Reader Comments (36)

Kudos to you for getting a jump on Mardis Gras and knowing the end of Christmas was the Epiphany. Great photos and I'm going to make a point of keeping an eye out for King Cake.

January 8 | Unregistered CommenterJeanna

I first heard about King Cakes from the awesome Kittee at Cake Maker to the Stars. She has a great vegan recipe at http://www.pakupaku.info/sweets/kingcake.shtml

Thank you Jeanna! Yeah, bring on the King Cakes!

Also, thanks Melisser, I put a link to that web site too! Yay!

January 8 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Yum! I love King Cake. My friend from New Orleans introduced it to me. I can't imagine making it though (but you know I am not a baker). I do think it is quite odd though to potentially be biting down on a plastic baby Jesus. :)


January 8 | Unregistered CommenterKari Brunson

I never knew that in New Orleans they celebrate too the KIng Cake Season!! I'm impressed that you knew very well the difference between the gallette de rois and gateau des rois..but personally i prefer gallette des rois coz i love the frangipane feeling.. but the cake photo you have looks absolutely delicious....i would definitely say yes for a slice of it!!

ps, you are one hell of a walking encyclopedia of food :-)

ps, btw i was crowned the "queen" yesterday :-)

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterDhanggit

I am learning here about King Cake thanks for the info :) I'm going to have a look at your links to this post, very interesting and tempting too - just what I like lol

Rosie x

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

I have seen this cake made once in a cookinf programme.

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterHappy cook

A vegan King Cake would be heavenly, thanks for the link!

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterRural Vegan

I can't imagine this is more difficult than a braided challah. I might make it, but, being Jewish, maybe I'll put a little plastic King David inside. ;-)

This is timely. I was just about to write the history of the King Cake today. There was a great story on NPR a few years ago.

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterdogfaceboy

What a fantastic post! I was fortunate enough to have found the little baby in the king cake once. Friends of ours from New Orleans used to have a party every few years to celebrate Mardi Gras, and they always serve a king cake. I never knew the full story behind it! Thanks for the great information.

I meant to add that, as always, your stories are colorful and entertaining.

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterdogfaceboy

Interesting! I had no idea such a cake existed. I would love to try the cream cheese filled version. Though the bright coloured icing on top kind of scares me.

January 9 | Unregistered Commentereatme_delicious

I love the list of your "interests". I have this thing about frangipane myself, lol. What great pictures!! I love King Cake.

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterjodi

Helen and I loved our king cake when we lived down there since it was a great excuse to eat a giant donut and kick off the party season, thanks for sharing this

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterredman

Haha, I love your little illustration of the king cake- So cute!

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterbittersweetblog

Impressive post. You really did you research! They really aren't hard to make. You can even use a bread machine.

I made king cake cupcakes this week. They were so yummy!


January 9 | Unregistered CommenterStef

Wow that first picture is so colorful :o). Mmmmm vegan king cake! Thanks for putting up the link!

wow i've had new orleans on the brain for a few days now. i went there to do hurricane relief work and i would like to go back so bad. maybe i'll have to make a king cake instead since i cannot afford to go back this year.

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterjezebel

caketastic...as ahnold said..I'll be back

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterdoggybloggy

Good hell...for once I am glad to be living in Nebraska. If I lived in New Orleans, I would truly be as fat as a pig because I ADORE cake and king cake sounds as if it would be right up my alley....

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

How wonderfully yummy!!!!


January 9 | Unregistered CommenterPixieDust

I've always been curious about how these things taste. Are they just over-the-top sweet?

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterSurcie

Squee! I love king cake -- it's the only part of Mardi Gras that I enjoy! (Well, I guess the week of no school is nice too.) I was going to do a post on the history of the king cake, but this one is great so I may not bother.

Surcie, king cakes differ from bakery to bakery, and the best comparison I can make is to a cinnamon roll. The sweetness depends on how much icing is piled on and if you get any fillings. The most traditional New Orleans king cake isn't that sweet; it's just pastry and colored sugar, no icing -- but that's not very common anymore.

January 9 | Unregistered Commenterthegirltastes

Oh, that first picture is to die for! It looks like a cluster of mardi gras doughnuts!

Thanks for considering the vegans with the link to the vegan King cake recipe - it is much appreciated and you are lovely! :)

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterRuby Red Vegan

I'm from Lousiana, so King Cake is part of life. When I moved away and lived in Phoenix for 10 years, my mom would have a king cake shipped from Gambino's every Mardi Gras. I trained my co-workers well.

I wonder if someone can invent a "Hurricane Cocktail Cupcake". With a vodka/lemon glaze for icing? Yum.

January 9 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie
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