King cake is one of the best known (and certainly one of the sweetest) Mardi Gras traditions. The circular sugary pastry is baked each year as part of the Carnival season, but you may not know that the cake associated with New Orleans’ biggest party has a long and storied history. Gather round for the true tale of king cake’s origins, how it fits into the Mardi Gras tradition and how you can make your own.
King cake is a rich pastry baked into the shape of a circle. Bakers use a brioche dough or a danish dough and twist it into the traditional ring, then top it with a sweet glaze. While the original king cake was a simpler creation, today bakers stuff the cake with cinnamon and cream cheese or fruit filling and use a brightly colored sugar glaze. Especially in the United States, king cakes tend to come in Mardi Gras colors—purple, green and gold—which represent justice, faith and power.
In other places around the globe, king cakes take different forms. In Britain, it’s a rich fruit cake. In France, the traditional king cake is a puff pastry-based galette des rois, which translates as “cake of kings.” In Spain and Latin America, the Rosca de reyes sweet bread with a light layer of icing is closest to the New Orleans’ king cake.
Tradition states that a baby or other trinket is hidden in the cake, and whoever finds the baby is supposed to receive good luck, but they’re also responsible for hosting the next Mardi Gras party (or at least bringing the next king cake). Today’s king cakes use a small plastic baby, though most bakers place the plastic trinket in the cake after baking because sticking a small blob of plastic inside your oven is a bad idea.
For the traditional American Mardi Gras version, one way to think of a king cake is as a giant cinnamon roll or coffee cake in the shape of a circle (which means that king cakes are not hard to make on your own. Stick around for a few easy recipes).
From Epiphany to Fat Tuesday: The Season of King Cake
Although we tend to think of Mardi Gras as a giant party held in the streets of New Orleans, the holiday’s foundation is a religious season. Mardi Gras refers to both the season of Carnival and the specific celebration of Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, which is the day before Lent begins. You’ll see king cakes at parties starting in January all the way through Mardi Gras.
In the Christian faith, though primarily honored in majority Catholic countries and regions, January 6 is known of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, marking the end of the Christmas season (thus the 12 days of Christmas). It’s also known as Kings Day, or the day when the three wise men (the three kings) delivered their gifts to the baby Jesus.
Twelfth Night traditions go back to the Middle Ages, where the Christmas season was celebrated with feasts and parties. It was a festival in the dead of winter, a chance to liven up an otherwise cold and boring time of year.
Epiphany also marks the beginning of Carnival, another festival season that leads up to Easter. Carnival ends with Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. Carnival season is marked with parties, feasts and parades (I’m sensing a theme in mid-winter festivals here) leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent, which is typically known as a time to repent or give up luxuries.
You can see the shape of kings cake in that history, quite literally. The circle represents the three kings’ crowns. The baby hidden inside today’s cakes goes back to the tradition of hiding a bean in the cake as a way of choosing the “Lord of Misrule,” or king for the day.
How to Get King Cake Outside New Orleans
While king cakes have been a part of New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations since Pierre Le Moyne, a French-Canadian explorer, carried the tradition of Carnival and king cake to Louisiana in 1699, the public didn’t start buying king cakes in large numbers until the 1950s. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that king cakes were stuffed with the now-common apple and cream cheese filling.
Advances in shipping in the 80s and 90s made it possible to easily send the cakes long distances, and of course now you can order a cake online with a click of a button. Today, Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans says that they bake over 60,000 king cakes annually, most of which are sold during the Mardi Gras season.
However, baking your own king cake at home is easy. We’ve put together a few simple king cake recipes for you that will turn your Mardi Gras party into a sweet celebration.
1. Joy the Baker’s take on her New Orleans’ home favorite: