Close your eyes and think of Mardi Gras. More likely than not, the images of parades and strands of plastic beads just came to mind. You’re not wrong, exactly, but allow us to direct your attention to another beloved tradition of Mardis Gras in New Orleans: King Cake.
King Cake has been baked for centuries to mark the celebration of the new year, from Three Kings Day to Fat Tuesday. But what is this ring-shaped dessert? And why is New Orleans known for making it? The delicious answers are right here.
King Cake dates back to the Middle Ages in Spain and France. As Catholicism spread around Western Europe and eventually came to the United States, the King Cake was tied to the specific time of year between Christmas and Lent.
In many cultures, King Cake starts to become available on Three Kings Day, which is January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or the 12th day of Christmas — yes, that song is actually based on something. Many countries around the world celebrate Three Kings Day, honoring the story of the three wise men who offered Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That’s why King Cakes typically have a plastic baby baked inside of them. More on that later.
When the French arrived in Louisiana, they brought the King Cake tradition with them. The cake soon became synonymous with Mardis Gras, though it’s available throughout the first two months of the year.
Fat Tuesday marks the last day before Ash Wednesday and the official start of the Lenten season. At a moment when believers are asked to give up something (often sweets) for forty days and nights, there’s nothing like a King Cake to get that one last hit of sugar.
Take a stroll around New Orleans, and you’ll see there’s more than one way to make King Cake. Many establishments pride themselves on their long-standing (and highly secret) family recipes.
King Cake can be made from puff pastry or something that more resembles bread. Some use braided dough, and some swirl down into the center with a cheese or candy filling. Whatever the case, there is no denying what most King Cakes have in common, no matter which bakery you find them in. They’re delicious.
All that said, let’s break down what goes into making the King Cake so special, especially for those who have not had the pleasure of biting into one.
A King Cake is a circular ring of flour-based pastry with a hole in the center, adorned with multi-colored glaze and sprinkles. The dessert is made for sharing, and so most King Cakes are about a foot across. The dough is typically seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, just a touch of lemon juice, and some sort of cream cheese.
The dough of King Cake is similar to brioche—it usually incorporates a yeast mixture and milk for an extra rich bake. If you’re making it yourself, you’ll have to knead the dough on a floured surface before leaving it in a warm place (warmer than room temperature) to rise in a large bowl. It’s then rolled out into a rectangle, filled with a cinnamon-sugar combination, and rolled for shaping.
The risen dough is often brushed with egg yolks to give it a beautiful golden brown color when it comes out of the oven, and it needs to cool on a wire rack before you add the icing and the sprinkles.
Perhaps the most delicious part of a King Cake is the icing (usually made with confectioners’ sugar) and sprinkles that go on top. No matter what kind of dough, every bakery in New Orleans will honor the tradition of green, purple, and yellow sprinkles. The green represents faith, the purple represents power, and the yellow represents justice. If you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season, you won’t just see these colors on the cakes. They’re everywhere.
Many bakeries are producing modern adaptations of the King Cake. Some have even worked bacon, peanut butter, or pecan praline into their recipes. You’ll frequently find versions that include strawberry, chocolate, and almond flavors as well. One restaurant, Cavan, developed a King Cake with tabasco pepper jelly cream cheese, crab fat, crawfish, and goat cheese. It’s like they mixed the best of New Orleans cuisine together and made it specially for us.
Most dessert recipes do not call for a plastic baby in their ingredients list, but most desserts are not King Cake. Yes, that’s right, baked inside every King Cake is a plastic baby, alluding to the baby born on Christmas Day.
It may sound a little unconventional for a choking hazard to be placed inside a holiday cake, but generally, they’re too big to go down unnoticed. Placing a trinket inside a cake is a very old tradition, linked to the King Cake and other European pastries. The French version of the King Cake was often baked with a bean inside. In New Orleans, the tradition of hiding a little Jesus was started by a bakery called McKenzie’s, who used porcelain babies. When it caught on, they switched to plastic. It makes sense—we can’t imagine porcelain babies are that easy to find.
The person who finds the baby in their slice of King Cake is officially dubbed the king for the day — hence the rounded, crown-like shape of the pastry. They’re also responsible for providing the King cake the following year. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
The absolute best place you can be during the Carnival season if you’re looking for King Cake is NOLA. Manny Randazzo King Cakes, Gambino Bakery, and Haydel’s Bakery are all home to some of the best. If you’re not as lucky, some New Orleans eateries will ship nationwide. Just make sure you get ahead of the Fat Tuesday rush.
On the other hand, you could take a crack at making your own King Cake. The internet is chock full of recipes. Just don’t forget to bake the baby. Once you start adding a competitive layer to your desserts, you won’t go back. Trust us.
Do you love all things New Orleans? You can show off your obsession with the iconic dessert with our NOLA King Cake t-shirt, featuring the beloved pastry in all its glory.