Mardi Gras season, also known around the world as Carnival, is a long-standing European tradition that is believed to have been brought to New Orleans by the French in 1870. Mardi Gras comes with many traditions, one of which is the beloved King Cake. In the century and a half since, the King Cake has evolved into a delicacy in during Mardi Gras, and many bakers even take an artistic approach to their creations.
Mardi Gras season begins on January 6th, a day known to Christians as the 12th day after Christmas, also known as “Twelfth Night” or “Epiphany.” According to the Biblical story, on this night, the three wise kings visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, so the King Cake is baked in honor of them. King Cakes are traditionally oval-shaped to symbolize a wreath, and they are usually decorated in the three Mardi Gras colors: purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power).
A traditional King Cake is made from braided Danish dough with a layer of cinnamon in the middle. The cake is then topped with sugary icing and sometimes sprinkles in the three Mardi Gras colors. King cakes may also be stuffed with different types of cream or fruit. Once the cake is baked, a small baby, representing the baby Jesus, is placed inside the cake, usually by the baker, though sometimes buyers can put it in themselves. The baby is usually made out of plastic, though in the past it might have been made out of porcelain or gold.
During Mardi Gras, people have often thrown King Cake parties, during which slices of a large King Cake are passed around. In the “search for the baby,” akin to the three kings’ search in the Bible story, eaters watch out for the baby in their slices. If you get the slice with the baby, you are dubbed “King of the night” and usually have to either buy the next King Cake or throw the next party.
There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands of King Cakes are ordered every year by people all across the world.