If you haven’t been to New Orleans for carnival season, you may not have heard of king cake. Carnival season, you ask? I know that Mardi Gras is the day before Lent begins, and that’s not for more than a month! Well, New Orleanians love to party, and no matter when Lent is on a given year, carnival begins on January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany. This is the day when the first king cakes of the season are consumed. Traditionally, you are permitted to eat king cake from Epiphany to Mardi Gras, and at no other time. Some devotees wait up until midnight to eat their first slice.
The king cake tradition is not limited to New Orleans. Eating a special cake on Epiphany originated in France, where they eat galette des rois and practiced in Mexico where a Rosca de la Reyes cake is served. In France, a favor (usually a coin or ring) is hidden somewhere in the cake. The person who gets the piece with the favor is king (or queen) for the day and wears a cardboard crown that comes with the cake in most boulangeries.
The French tradition evolved in New Orleans, and now we have our own twist on eating king cake. Instead of a ring or crown, a plastic baby is placed somewhere in the cake. My first year in New Orleans, I went to a party on Epiphany and was the lucky winner who got the baby. I’m like a child about these things and was really excited to see what my prize would be. Then I found out. The person who gets the baby doesn’t get a crown or present. They get to host the next Mardi Gras party and must buy the next king cake. I’m still annoyed about that.
So exactly what is king cake? There are more kinds than you can imagine. In France they are made with puff pastry and in Mexico they have candied fruit inside. In New Orleans, traditional king cakes are made of cinnamon pastry formed into a large ring and topped with frosting in Mardi Gras colors, purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power). These cakes looked gaudy and unappetizing to me when I first saw them, but if you give them a chance, you could become a fan like I did.
There are many variations on the king cake recipe, so you are sure to find one you like. For people who want something more than plain cinnamon pastry, king cakes come with a variety of fillings like cream cheese, fruit compote, or praline. You can find these at grocery stores all over the city.
If you want a more traditional French puff pastry, go to La Boulangerie on Magazine Street or Maple Street Patisserie in Uptown. Loretta’s Authentic Pralines in the Marigny makes a king cake filled and frosted with pralines, and Marguerite’s Cakes in Slidell makes a Cajun pecan and praline cake. You can find a vegan king cake at Breads on Oak and sugar-free cakes at Adrian’s in Gentilly or Dorignac’s in Metarie. Finally, you can buy kosher king cake, too. Outsiders might think it’s odd that Hillel at Tulane sells a kosher cake used to celebrate a Christian holiday, but here in New Orleans, that’s how we roll.
Those are only the sweet cakes. That’s right, there are savory king cakes of several kinds: Cake Café in the Marigny makes a boudin-stuffed, bacon-topped cake and Bosco’s Italian Café offers one stuffed with crawfish. Popular last year was Food Drunk Food Truck’s cheeseburger served in between pieces of king cake. Finally, Cartozzo’s makes both a muffaletta and a crawfish-filled king cake, which won Best Savory King Cake at last year’s King Cake Festival.
Most of these establishments do a lively mail-order business, so if you want to send friends or family a taste of New Orleans, nearly all these cakes can be shipped per order. I wanted to end by mentioning the people’s favorites. When I bought my first king cake, I was directed to Haydel’s, long a favorite of people in the city. Last year’s festival winners featured Maurice’s French Pastries, which won the Best Presentation and People’s Choice awards. Also