Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, comes a little bit late this year, but that just means you’ve got a few extra days of King Cake season. Most know New Orleans as the home of the King Cake, and the Crescent City remains the headquarters of all things Mardi Gras. However, King Cakes have begun to spring up all over the country and they represent a lot more than just Mardi Gras festivities. Fat Tuesday actually marks the end of King Cake season with the beginning starting on January 6.
Ethnicities and religions of all kinds celebrate the entire Carnival season beginning on January 6. In the Catholic religion it’s called The Feast of the Epiphany. Also called The Twelfth Day of Christmas, Twelfth Night and Three Kings Day, the beginning of this holiday season represents the journey of the three wise men to visit and offer the baby Jesus gifts. The culmination of this period on Fat Tuesday allows for merry-making and indulgence before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
The King Cake tradition was originally brought to the US by French and Spanish settlers and took hold in New Orleans sometime in the late 19th century. Different religions and cultures celebrate the Carnival season different ways, but in New Orleans, the surrounding areas, and lately all over the country, it’s celebrated with King Cakes.
To make a King Cake, shape a yeasted sweet dough into a ring or an oval. Some say that this traditional shape represents a king’s crown or the unity of faith. Another popular belief for the shape relates to the Three Wise Men and the route they took on their journey to visit the baby Jesus.
The story goes that the Wise Men took a circuitous path on the trek to visit Jesus because they were being followed by Herod. It was Herod’s intention to kill the Christ Child, so the Wise Men didn’t go straight, but instead traveled in a way that meant to lose Herod on the way. While most King Cakes retain the traditional ring shape, it doesn’t have to be that way. Many in the bakery world have innovated on the shape of the King Cake for the purpose of selling more, and it’s worked.
In Alexandria, LA, Atwood’s Bakery sells a non-traditional solid roll-shaped King Cake. Customers at Atwood’s had often asked why King Cake was not being sold by the slice. Because King Cake is a bread product, as soon as it gets cut into, it begins to stale. Atwood’s came up with the roll-shaped King Cake as an individual to alleviate the by-the-slice issue. The individual continues to do well for Atwood’s.
Traditionally a King Cake gets flavored with cinnamon, but these tend to be a little bit dry. To make them moister, cream cheese, flavored cream cheese and fruit fillings are a staple. Mixing multiple different combinations of cream cheese and fruit, flavored cream cheeses and the traditional cinnamon creates an excellent upsell. In many cases, these mixtures will likely sell the best.
Decorate King Cakes with a sugar icing, then sprinkle with different colored sugars. The traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold represent justice, faith and power respectively. But you don’t have to limit yourself to these colors by any means.
Valentine’s Day and the NFL playoffs both fall within the Carnival season. A strawberry cream cheese filled King Cake with pink and red sugar offers sweethearts something new and unique to give to one another. In New Orleans, it’s not out of the ordinary at all to see King Cakes decorated in the Saints colors of black and gold. If you’re in an area where your customers might not know about King Cakes, educate them.
No matter the shape, filling or decoration, the most important thing about a King Cake, the thing that makes it real and authentic, is the trinket.
All good King Cakes come with a trinket. Traditionally, this trinket came in the form of a bean. In some European and Mexican festivities, the bean is still used. In the US, the trinket has been replaced with a tiny plastic doll that represents the baby Jesus. Hidden inside the cake, whoever receives the trinket in their slice has certain obligations or privileges.
Past traditions dictate that the lucky person who gets the trinket becomes King or Queen for the day and leads the revelry. Newer traditions state that whoever gets the trinket in their slice must host the next party and provide the next King Cake. Today, because of safety, health codes, laws, etc., many producers provide the trinket or doll outside of the cake, but traditionally they were baked in.
Gourmet King Cake Flavors
Take inspiration from some of the gourmet flavors in the heart of King Cake country.
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery, New Orleans, LA – Apple & Goat Cheese
Maurice French Pastries, Metairie, LA – “The Woodland Plantation,” Bavarian praline cream with praline morsels, flavored with Southern Comfort liquor and Chantilly cream. “General Foster,” sautéed banana flamed with New Orleans dark rum folded in light vanilla and Chantilly cream.
Atwood’s Bakery, Alexandria, LA – “Zulu,” Coconut and chocolate filled, iced in fudge and sprinkled with toasted coconut.
Rhonda Ruckman (Link Restaurant Group) – Chocolate cream (brioche dough), Sour cream, devil’s food crumbs and chocolate chip filled.