Know Your Sweets: New Orleans King Cake
The signature baked good of Carnival season in New Orleans, king cake is comprised of a ring of rich, brioche-like dough and any number of sweet fillings, from cinnamon to cream cheese. (Also, watch out from the plastic baby inside!) It's typically topped with icing and sprinkles in green, purple, and gold.
Galette des rois, rosca de reyes, vasilopita, twelfth cake
While traditional king cakes usually have a spongy dough with a filling of either cinnamon, cream cheese, or fruit, bakeries across New Orleans are now creating a mind-blowing array of specialty king cakes. (The staff of the Times-Picayune have dedicated themselves to a gluttonous 58 days of king cake sampling, trying one new cake a day.)
The edible gold-foil flecked king cake at Domenica is a particular standout, filled with salted caramel, fresh bananas, roasted pecans, mascarpone cheese, caramel, and covered in a praline glaze. "I was thinking about what a king cake would look like for the king and queen of Mardi Gras," Domenica pastry chef Lisa White said, describing her inspiration. "I also wanted to include something local (if only historical) which led me to bananas."
For the diner looking to add a little bit of king cake to every meal, the food truck Food Drunk has created a hamburger using a king cake for the bun.
Spotlight City: New Orleans, Louisiana
While the custom of eating an oval-shaped wreath to celebrate Twelfth Night dates back centuries in France and Spain, the king cake as we know it today is a true New Orleans original, so synonymous with the city that it has become something of a sugary emblem. Bakeries up and down the Gulf Coast take part in king cake creation.
The colored icing traditional on king cakes were chosen to resemble the crowns of the wise men who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, and are indicative of the royal colors of Mardi Gras, with purple signifying justice, green indicating faith, and gold for (what else?) power.
According to New Orleans lore, the first king cake was fashioned by a New Orleans social group, the Twelfth Night Revelers, who would hide a bean, jeweled ring, or pecan inside the cake for their Mardi Gras celebration. The person who found this trinket would be crowned the queen of their ball.
For the most part, king cakes were simply baked-at-home family affairs until the 1940s, when McKenzie's baker Donald Entringer began baking the cakes at his store. By the 1950s, they were a staple for all major New Orleans bakeries, including Randazzo's, Gambino's and Haydel's.
McKenzie's was one of the biggest and most famous commercial bakeries in 20th century New Orleans. By 1950, king cake had become such a fixture of the Mardi Gras season, served over and over between King Day and Fat Tuesday, that people increasingly turned to commercial bakeries like McKenzie's to source their cakes.
McKenzie's was also the first bakery to commercially insert a small baby into its king cake (after getting health department approval), beginning with porcelain babies and eventually moving on to the cheaper option still seen today: plastic babies of all colors, ranging from various shades of tan to green and purple.
Eunice, Louisiana, a small town in the Cajun prairie located three hours from New Orleans, was known for many years as the home of the "World's Largest King Cake" until Haydel's Bakery usurped their crown in September 2010. Haydel's world record-holding king cake, which weighed in at 8,688 pounds, used 4,000 pounds of Danish flour, and 428 dozen eggs, was housed in the Superdome so onlookers could bask in the glory of a massive Mardi Gras confection.
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About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer and culinary anthropologist living in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her first book, Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile High Pie came out earlier this month.