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Tuesday
Jan082008

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)

hey, checked out your esty store - great stuff! As for this Mardi Gras cake - I've never seen anything like it... nice to read the culture behind it too. Scary frosting colours : )

January 10 | Unregistered Commenterkat

Okay..this is easy..want to help New Orleans? Go online and order yourself a king cake from Gambinos or Haydels.. the Gambinos one comes with treats...throw a petit party and have a good time!! Send one to a friend...honestly they are a huge amount of fun..garish yes, but soooo delicious... La Marquise does the gallette that will rival those in Paris but I am not sure they ship...so what's not to like? Cake and a hand up?? Gotta love this post Cakespy. Laissez les bons temps rouler...
All best, Jan

January 10 | Unregistered CommenterJanice C. Cartier

This was a very educational article for me. Sadly, I am learning that I am way too NYC centric. Great cake pictures too!

Niko

January 10 | Unregistered CommenterNiko

Kari: You're lucky, a lot of people had never even heard of it (horrors!).

Dhanggit: The gallette des rois is not as common here unfortunately...have a big slice for us!!

Rosie: We hope you'll try making it! Let us know how it goes!

Happy cook: Cool! Yes, I think it has been featured on the food network.

Rural Vegan: You're welcome! Thank Melisser!

Dogfaceboy: Thanks! :-)

Things that Inspire: You found the baby!? Awesome!

Eat Me, Delicious: Yes, those colors are...garish. But it's almost so over the top you can't help but love it! Go, excess!

Jodi: Glad you liked the interests, sort of sick, huh.

Paul: Glad we could drum up some happy memories for you!

Bittersweetblog: Our favorite part is the creepy little baby.

Stef: Your cupcakes are so rad! Great idea!!

Chocolatecoveredvegan: I hope you'll try it!!

Jezebel: What a great cause! You deserve a King Cake.

Doggybloggy: Thanks Ahnold ;-)

Maria: Yup, it is a sinful cake. But I am sure you have some good local specialties there...

Pixiedust: You said it!

Surcie: I think thegirltastes put it really perfectly!

Thegirltastes: Glad you liked the writeup...it's your territory after all!

Ruby Red Vegan: You are welcome! Glad you enjoyed. Isn't that photo great??

Geggie: Hurricane Cupcake Cocktail...where's our to-do list???

Kat: Thanks for the nice comments about the art! You should try the King Cake...you might be lovin' that scary frosting after you taste it!

Jan: Thanks! I would love to see a Cartier painting of a King Cake!

Niko: I'm sure there's got to be someplace in the city you could get one!

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

You got it Cakespy! Just hung up from Haydel's. A cream cheese filled king cake will be here tomorrow. Mouth watering and paints ready ;)
(If you call before 11am, King Cake is yours overnight the very nice lady asked me to say.)

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterJanice C. Cartier

Janice: YEA! I can't wait to see the painting!!! I know it's gonna be gorgeous.

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Delicious painting!
Purple icing makes me hesitate...
Still one must try new things I suppose..
BIG MERCI
Carolg

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterParisBreakfasts

Mme Petit dejeuner: Just close your eyes and give it a try! No, not a color occurring in nature, but so good!

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Every year my company has a Mardi Gras party and I am saddled with the burden of locating a huge King Cake! Maya's Homemade bakes to order in NYC, and the cakes are damn good. (You can also just google "King Cake NYC" for more places to buy them.) Only problem? You've got to supply your own baby jesus. (And generally they come in packs of 10 or 50. Though you can't underestimate the fun of saying, "Have the baby Jesuses shipped yet?" etc.)

Great post! When I started the king cake buying, there was very little info online, so it's nice to a see a great resource.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterIn Yr Fshn

In Yr Fshn: Thanks! And that is pretty awesome that it's BYOJ (Bring your own Jesus). Love it. It reminds me of how I was the baby Jesus in the Christmas recital when I was still in swaddling clothes--my mom still loves claiming that I was the Baby Jesus.

January 22 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

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