The King of Cakes

A history of the almighty king cake

Millions of visitors swarm the streets of New Orleans to take part in the grand finale of festivities for Mardi Gras. Their demand for plastic purple beads is matched only by their hunger for the sugary pastry that has become a symbol of the American Mardi Gras all over the world: a New Orleans king cake.

The cake's appearance marks the start of the city's celebration, and soon everywhere you go has one available for snacking. The brioche-style sweet bread, or couronne, is typically a braided ring, rolled in cinnamon and bejeweled with green, purple, and gold sugars to resemble a crown. Popular variations include cream-cheese filling or various fruit custards.

Hidden in the dough is a small plastic baby, and whoever finds it in his or her slice is expected to bring the cake for next year – or the next day, in many cases.

Today's king cake traditions can be traced back to the celebrations of Epiphany in 12th-century France, where it marked the beginning of the carnival season and commemorated the revelation of the Magi. The galette des roi (king cake) refers to a round, flat cake made of flaky pastry dough, filled with frangipane or custard. A small bean or nut was hidden in the center, and slices of the pastry were distributed at the Epiphany celebration. The recipient won privileges as king for the day, hence a "king cake."

Centuries later, the ceremonial cake continues to usher in the season of celebration, but like most things American, the modern king cake has been influenced by various cultures, creating a unique hybrid all its own. In Hispanic communities, rosca de reyes (king cake) is served in observance of the Epiphany, complete with a baked-in, plastic baby Jesus. Decorations vary, but most are topped with icing, colored sugar, or pieces of candied fruit.

King cakes can be ordered for your celebration at the following:

La Mexicana, 1924 S. First, 443-6369
Open 24 hours
Serves rosca de reyes
Requires 24-hour notice
Small serves about 12: $8.50
Large serves about 25: $16.50

Sweetish Hill Bakery, 1120 W. Sixth, 472-1347
Monday-Saturday, 6:30am-7pm; Sunday, 6:30am-5pm
Traditional French galette des roi
Requires 24-hour notice
Sizes range from 8-inch (serves 8-10) for $15 to 16-inch (serves up to 20) for $34

La Madeleine, Various locations
Offers French-style king cake (galette des roi) and Mardi Gras-style king cake
Slice: $2.29 or cake: $15

Central Market, 4001 N. Lamar, 206-1000
Daily, 9am-9pm
King cake (with strand of beads) to go
Size: 1.5 pounds for $9.99

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More King Cake
King Cakes
King Cakes
If you bite the baby, you buy the next one

Virginia B. Wood, March 4, 2011

Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras
Have your cake, and laissez les bons temps rouler!

Virginia B. Wood, Feb. 1, 2008

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king cake, galette des roi, rosca de reyes, La Mexicana, Sweetish Hill Bakery, La Madeleine, Central Market

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