A King Cake is a delicious tradition of the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. Traditionally it's round or oval, like a crown, and has a baby hidden inside. During King Cake season, King Cakes are everywhere in New Orleans. If you go to a party, a parade, or almost any casual gathering, there's likely to be a King Cake.
What's the Deal with the King Cake Baby?
Whoever gets the baby in his or her slice of King Cake, is traditionally the king (or queen) of the party and sometimes gets to pick a royal partner to help rule. Getting the baby also supposedly brings good luck.
Nowadays with office and other casual King Cake feedings, getting the baby is sometime avoided since it obligates the person to buy the next King Cake. Sometimes no one admits to getting the baby, especially if a King Cake is left for self-serving at an office. To catch the disingenuous King Cake eaters, I once saved up King Cake babies and put one in each piece of King Cake at my office's weekly party. As expected, several people failed to report their King Cake baby.
Originally the "baby" was a bean. I don't know of any cake that have beans instead of babies nowadays, except for those golden beans that determine Carnival royalty for at least one exclusive old-line Mardi Gras krewe. That's another old New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition involving the King Cake.
Although most King Cakes have the pink or pale baby, you can sometimes find babies of different colors from brown to shiny purple, green or gold, as well as fancy figurines, collectables, or other special King Cake 'babies'.
When is King Cake Season?
King Cake season begins on January 6th which is Kings Day, 12th Night and the Feast of the Ephipany and ends on Mardi Gras Day. This is traditionally the only time when it is appropriate to eat King Cakes.
King Cakes are traditionally available only during King Cake season, which is suppose to be from 12th Night or Kings Day to Mardi Gras Day. King Cakes "season" continues to expand and you can actually get a King Cake any time of year and shipped anywhere in the United States.
Why is it called a King Cake?
Kings Day is the date when the three kings or Magi supposedly arrived at the manger with those gifts for Jesus. That explains the King Cake name as well as the baby.
What's the history?
The history of the King Cake can be traced to European Twelfth Night confections and traditions. It was really the final celebration of Christmas. It is literally the last of the 12 days of Christmas.
Back in the old days, Christmas time or Yuletide were a season of celebration, parties and merrymaking that just started on Christmas Day. A special cake was enjoyed on Kings Day or 12th Night in honor of the Magi in many European regions. And often there was a coin, bean, or other token baked in the confection. Getting the hidden prize in your piece of cake was a harbinger of good luck, just like the modern King Cake baby. The tradition came to the New World with European settlers. The custom is most kept alive in New Orleans and also some South American cultures.
What New with King Cakes in New Orleans?
The types of King Cakes available in New Orleans exploded in recent years. Although the traditional shape and general appearance dominants, there is an incredible variety of shapes, decorations, and dough in addition to the mind-boggling selection of fillings. And King Cakes are available any time of year and for celebrations far removed from Kings Day or Mardi Gras.
There are also "Seasonal King Cakes" that celebrate Christmas and other holidays and events despite the objections of traditionalists who object to eating King Cake out of season or changing its iconic shape.
King Cakes are no longer always round or oval, although those shapes are dominant. At some bakeries you can order a Fleur de Lis shaped King Cake, and other King Cake shapes such as a Tiger Tail, Christmas candy cane, letters, words and other shapes.
Nowadays, the colored sugar topping is not always the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, nor is any icing always pure white. There are green and red Christmas King Cakes, red Valentine Day King Cakes (which are sometimes heart shaped) and green King Cakes for the many St, Patrick Day celebrations and parades in New Orleans which are often right around Mardi Gras. The Saints black and gold colors are especially popular especially on game days.
The cake itself of a King Cake is still often braided and cinnamon flavored, although the sweetness of the filling and icing of some King Cakes overpowers that taste. The sweeter, fancier King Cakes with rich fillings are the current rage. There's an incredible variety of fillings available with more each year. It sometimes feels like a competition among the King Cake makers. Thankfully, traditionalists can still enjoy the rather plainer traditional cakes with just color sugar and/or light icing on top.
If you can't wait for a King Cake gathering, another innovation of recent years is the small individual serving size King Cake. And yet, it does come with a baby. Speaking of those babies, sometimes - especially with out of town mail orders where presumably swallowing the baby might a more likely concern - the baby is left outside of the cake for the purchaser to insert.
King Cakes are a favorite sweet treat of New Orleans, a beloved tradition, and practically an addiction for many New Orleanians.
King Cakes are delivered across the United States nowadays usually with a huge upcharge. The packages often include Mardi Gras beads, go-cups, and the like. Most New Orleans King Cake bakeries have on-line and mail-order King Cakes. There's no comparison to buying a freshly baked King Cake in New Orleans. The variety is amazing and you can pick up a King Cake just about anywhere from fancy bakeries to doughnut shops to grocery stores to even Walmart.
Check out some of the local New Orleans bakeries with great King Cakes. Most also sell King Cakes on-line. And here's a list of delicious King Cakes at New Orleans grocery stores and supermarkets.