Winter is a special time for pastries. Mardi Gras season, along with the colder weather, brings with it a tradition of indulgence.

King cakes are inextricably tied to Mardi Gras. One of the ways in which people celebrate the official start to Carnival season (also known as the Pre-Lenten period) is with king cakes, desserts that typically come in the form of a sweet brioche dough in the shape of a hollow circle topped with glaze sprinkled with colored sugar.

King Cake Hub, the brainchild of Will Samuels, is a retailer that compiles all the best king cake options in New Orleans into one easy-to-use shopping experience. Customers can order king cakes from a variety of bakeries through the website and then pick up those cakes at a single location.

Beginning Monday, Jan. 6, King Cake Hub offered over 50 varieties of king cakes from nearly a dozen bakery partners. One of its partners, the Culinary Arts program of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), created a Satsuma Almond King Cake. They start by layering flaky puff pastry with rich almond paste, then add a bright, refreshing, citrus filling using satsumas (a variety of mandarin oranges).

Another King Cake Hub partner, Caluda’s Bakery, developed the Dragon Claw cake. It has a flaky laminate Danish dough (made with butter) and a cream cheese icing. “This will be the cake that everyone is talking about in 2020. Plus, only fifty will be made per day, available exclusively at King Cake Hub, so you’ll have to act fast to get it,” says Samuels.

Willa Jean is one of the most renowned bakeries in New Orleans, as well as the rest of the country. Its pastry chef and owner, Kelly Fields, took home the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2019. The bakery’s Caramel Crunch King Cake has become quite popular with customers around Mardi Gras. It’s made with a traditional cinnamon sugar filling and topped with a crunchy caramel glaze and cream cheese frosting.

King cakes are typically not associated with health, but that changes with a new product from Texas-based Unrefined Bakery. The company teamed up with the registered dietitians at Ochsner Eat Fit to develop a king cake that’s centered on a clean list of ingredients including Swerve Sweetener - a natural, plant-based, low-glycemic, zero-calorie sugar replacement that tastes and measures like sugar.

The Eat Fit King Cake is naturally gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, and approved for a ketogenic diet. Each cake has zero sugar, no artificial food dyes, no white/refined flour, 93% fewer carbohydrates, four times more protein, and 2.5 times more fiber.

Another beloved pastry this time of year is the paczki. Fat Tuesday is also known as Paczki Day, and it is one of the biggest days of the year for many Midwestern bakeries. Many Polish immigrants settled in the Midwest and brought with them paczki, donut-like treats typically filled with custard or jelly. Over time, these pastries have earned a reputation as an important part of the Lenten season.

Bakeries prepare for the rush of customers who will grab these special treats during the final hours before Ash Wednesday.

Creative Cakes in Tinley Park, Illinois, has become a top distributor of paczki. The bakery’s “Extreme Paczki” includes creative twists like Maple Bacon Mayhem, which is filled with maple custard, iced with maple glaze, and topped with crumbled bacon. One of the most beloved flavors is the Atomic Paczki, which is filled with fresh bananas in custard, fresh strawberries in glaze, and whipped cream. It is then topped with chocolate icing.

“They’re a little more work than a regular paczki, but you get a lot out of it,” says Beth Fahey, co-owner of Creative Cakes. Another unique paczki location in the Chicago area is Delightful Pastries. This bakery has made its mark with unique flavors. Delightful Pastries’ Drunken Pastries feature boozy fillings, such as a Jameson Irish Whiskey-spiked chocolate custard and a lemon moonshine version.

Detroit and its suburbs are one of the most popular paczki areas in the country.

In Hamtramck, Michigan, you’ll find New Palace Bakery. This European bakery is located in an area known to be a vibrant center of Polish American life and culture. New Palace represents that well with its paczki selections. It has satisfied customers with its fusion of flavors, such as Peanut Butter & Jelly.

The bakery’s most recent paczki additions last year included the Triple Chocolate Paczki and the Birthday Cake Paczki. The Triple Chocolate flavor is chocolate-filled and topped with milk chocolate and chocolate chips, while the Birthday Cake flavor features buttercream, yellow cake, and rainbow sprinkles.