For generations, the almighty King Cake, aka Mardi Gras' signature sweet treat, was celebrated and devoured in only a handful of flavors, including cinnamon, cream cheese and, yes, even unfilled. It was loved and it was revered, but it was also, well, maybe a little boring.
Over the past decade, local bakeries and pastry chefs have made a concerted effort to elevate this Carnival Season favorite to something worthy of fine china and in varieties that delight every palate. Here are four versions that you should pick up before Fat Tuesday.
Rivista: Mexican and French King Cakes
The upstart, whimsical café Rivista has opened strong in its first Mardi Gras season, creating both Mexican and traditional French king cakes (gallete des rois) that come in highly manageable, miniature sizes, so if you "accidentally" eat the entire cake, there's no risk of possible sugar coma.
With their take on the rosca de reyes (kings' ring) cake that is popular across Mexico and Central America on Twelfth Night, Rivista is the first bakery in New Orleans to introduce this alternative tradition to an unapologetically Francophone city. The cake ($25/large cake) is dark and dense with a glistening rum glaze, dotted with jewel-toned candied cherries, dates, and gets a burst of color from orange zest. The interior filling is refreshingly crisp, with the strong flavor of anise combining with apricot and cinnamon.
Breads on Oak: Fig and Apple Vegan King Cake
The number of options for vegans in New Orleans has been steadily growing over the past few years, with bakeries like Bywater-darling Shake Sugaree and the Riverbend's Breads on Oak leading the way in showing a meat-and-diary loving town that vegan can also be delicious.
The vegan Apple and Fig King Cake ($62/large cake) from Breads on Oak leads the charge in the alternative king cake category, and also lays claim to being one of the only entirely-organic king cakes in the city. The king cake's dough is moist, thick, and the true star of the cake, providing the perfect counterpoint to the juicy, fruity filling on the inside. Figs are grown easily and widely across Louisiana, and provide a rich, earthy flavor that makes you almost believe that these funny little fruits could really be nature's candy.
Norma's Bakery: Guava Cream Cheese King Cake
Norma's is a stalwart of delicious, inexpensive Cuban baked goods, and it's offering up one of the most surprisingly refreshing king cakes of the Mardi Gras season. The bread used is unlike any other king cake in the city, with a buoyant, spongy texture that Norma's employees say has been created in a traditional Cuban style. The filling of guava paste and cream cheese is simultaneously tangy and creamy, melting in your mouth without the cloying texture that is present in many cream cheese King Cakes. ($14.50/large cake)
Cochon Butcher: The Elvis King Cake
Oh, Cochon, you went there, didn't you? While it's no surprise that a restaurant built around swine-worship found a way to incorporate pork into their King Cake ($3.50/slice), the Elvis is a sticky, over-the-top ode to the King of Rock and Roll's favorite sandwich. Filled with peanut butter and banana then covered in a stretchy film of marshmallow and dotted with crispy pieces of thick-cut bacon, this King Cake is not for the faint of heart. For an extra dose of adorable, Cochon replaces the traditional baby in their King Cakes with a pink pig.
Not a fan of King Cake itself? Never fear. You can enjoy the dessert's delicious, sugary flavors in a variety of other forms, including King Cake ice cream from Angelo Braccato and King Cake vodka, which is produced seasonally by Taaka.
About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.