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"Mardi Gras" is French for "Fat Tuesday," as it is the day before Ash Wednesday and the Christian season of Lent. Lent commemorates and honors the 40 days Jesus spent in the barren dessert, praying and preparing for his imminent crucifixion. Fasting is a key component of the Lenten tradition, and therefore, the Tuesday prior is a day of debauchery. If you're not familiar with Lent, think of it in terms of a diet: right before you begin starving and denying yourself delicious things, you binge.
There are more religious calendar connotations to the tradition of King Cake. The cake is served on Epiphany or January 6th (and actually, as a Latin American Catholic, that's when I'm used to having King Cake); that's also known as Three King's Day (also known as the Three Wisemen), when the Biblical Magi visited the newborn Jesus and presented Him with gifts.
As a child, we would cut open the oval-shaped rosca de Reyes and eagerly look for a plastic baby doll that had been tucked inside the cake. For the kids it was just a treat, but some tradition holds that whoever finds the doll is responsible for procuring the rosca the following year.
Other countries with Christian traditions also bake King Cake: in Greece and Cyprus, vasilopita, in Bulgaria, banitsa, in France, galette des Rois.
Stateside, particularly in Louisiana where the biggest Mardi Gras bash explodes every year, the cake is a sweet brioche-like confection with a cinnamon filling which includes a dried bean or pea (a stand-in for the baby doll). The person who discovers it is crowned king or queen for the day.
This version is a quick take on the cake, made with store-bought puff pastry. The filling is cinnamon-sugar, and as a nod to its Southern state of residence, contains bourbon-poached golden raisins. This cake calls for a dried bean to be placed, so warn your guests prior to biting in lest you want a king or queen with a cracked tooth!
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