King cake is an oval- or ring-shaped sweet yeast bread, sometimes containing a filling and typically decorated with vibrant purple, green, and gold sugar or icing. The roots of this fun treat hark back to Europe, but the current New Orleans version reflects numerous local modifications, rendering it a truly American cake.
The first light cakes in Europe made their way from medieval Moorish Spain to Renaissance Italy and from there eventually throughout Europe. The loose dough was baked in massive quantities in large wooden rings, each cake typically weighing six to twelve pounds. These treats were rich with white flour, butter, eggs, and imported sugar, dried fruit, and spices. Because the ingredients were expensive, these cakes were reserved for very special occasions, notably weddings, christenings, and Epiphany.
The Roman Catholic Church chose the twelfth day from December 25th as the Feast of the Epiphany (Greek for “appearance”), commemorating the magi -— magi were Zoroastrian priests (also the source of the word magic), but in Christian tradition came to mean “wise men” and sometimes mistakenly called “kings.” January 6th marks Twelfth Day and the evening of January 5th is Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was celebrated with a host of customs, many dating back to the Saturnalia, including masquerades, clowning, social satires, and rowdy, frequently bawdy games. Among the most beloved and enduring Epiphany traditions was the special sweet yeast cake. Ancient Romans, during the Saturnalia festival, baked a fava bean, a symbol of fertility and the underworld, inside a ritual round barley bread. Around the end of the 14th century, this practice was readopted in Italy for the new Twelfth Night cakes. Whoever found the bean in their portion was supposedly assured of good luck for the coming year. The notion of “king,” derived from the token-finder and associated with the magi, gave rise to a special name for the bread – three kings cake or kings’ cake.
French and Spanish settlers (Creoles) brought to the Louisiana area their cuisines and holiday customs, eventually applied to the entire period from Epiphany through Mardi Gras. The last day before Lent, the forty-day season leading up to Easter, is Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French), known as Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day in England and Martedi Grasso and Carnevale (probably “removal of meat”) in Italy. The date of Mardi Gras is determined by the lunar calendar and can occur anywhere from early February to early March. As it emerged in 13th century Italy, Carnevale — reflecting origins in ancient pagan spring fertility rites, notably the Roman circus-like Lupercalia and Bacchanalia — assumed an air of ritualized chaos, revelry, buffoonery, games, processions, masks, feasting, drinking, and sensuality.
The first official krewe (Carnival society), Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded in 1857, which also staged the first organized and themed parade with floats, transforming Mardi Gras in New Orleans into a more controlled and safer environment. In 1872, the Rex Krewe adopted symbolic colors, those of Russia’s Romanov dynasty, for the festival -— purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power) — becoming the official colors of Mardi Gras. In 1875, Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a state holiday.
The name of gâteau des Rois eventually Anglicized to “king’s cake” or more commonly “king cake,” while the cake itself as well as its usage also changed. King cake in New Orleans, instead of noting the end of the Christmas season and limited to January 6 alone, marked the onset of Carnival and extended revelry. On every weekend from January 6th through Mardi Gras, groups, both small and massive, throughout the city held balls and parties, with king cake as the star — a pecan half sometimes substituted for the bean. Whoever found the token in their slice became king or queen and expected to throw the party or buy the cake for the following week. Following the French innovation, local New Orleans bakeries introduced various charms as the token for their king cakes. In the 1950s, small imported porcelain baby dolls from Hong Kong became a popular substitute for the bean -– according to local lore the result of a store purchasing too large of an order. When these proved a bit pricey, a 1-inch plastic doll was substituted –- today commonly inserted into the cake or arranged on top after baking. King cake is almost exclusively purchased from commercial enterprises and rarely homemade.
In 20th century New Orleans, a smaller braided oval or ring-shaped version of king cake about three-inches high, reminiscent of a bejeweled crown, became more prevalent. Formerly, the top of king cakes were bare or decorated with coarse sugar or dragees. More recently, the English-style icing became prominent. In addition, bakers began to sprinkle colored sugar (it adds a crunch) over the icing or tint the icing with the traditional purple, green, and gold hues. Beginning in 1972, an increasing number of bakers began filling king cakes with cinnamon-sugar -– transforming it into a large cinnamon roll. Other prevalent filling flavors followed, including almond paste, apple, chocolate, cream cheese (the most popular), lemon, and praline. A “Zulu king cake” — inspired by the Krewe of Zulu, famous since 1910 for passing out coconuts from their floats — features coconut cream filling (or cream cheese mixed with grated coconut) and dark chocolate icing.
The original gâteau des Rois has a more pronounced flavor of egg, a drier and lighter texture, and is less sweet (and, of course, lacks a filling). Modern king cake dough typically incorporates a little more sugar and less butter and eggs than standard brioche, resulting in a slightly firmer dough –- capable of holding a shape and filling — and moister bread. The amount of ingredients in the dough and fillings and the type and quantity of icing embellishment all differ from bakery to bakery. The size widely varies. Several fast food franchises offer individual serving sized king cakes (basically a cinnamon roll).
Only in the 1960s did king cake — with the growing repute and economic significance of Mardi Gras and the cake receiving exposure on television commercials and newspaper articles — shift from being an upper class ball extravagance to a treat enjoyed on a wide scale by every element of southern Louisiana society. In 1989, a local bakery shipped 400 king cakes (the newer filled type) to food critics across America, engendering a wave of national publicity and interest. King cake was no longer only a local treat.
Each year, just in time for January 6th, these sweet breads suddenly appear in bakeries, doughnut shops, and groceries in southwest Louisiana, churned out in mass numbers and swiftly and repeatedly purchased -— and numerous more shipped throughout the United States. For the following weeks through Mardi Gras, king cake remains a staple in the region, ubiquitous at parties, workplaces, schools, and assorted gatherings. Then, just as abruptly as they arrive, at the end of Carnival season king cakes vanish from the stores, not to be offered again until the following Twelfth Night.
In order to extend the season (and sales), some bakeries recently began offering king cakes with alternate icing tints for other occasions: Red and green for Christmas; red and pink for Valentine’s Day; green and white for St. Patrick’s Day; orange and black for Halloween; and school colors during college football season. King cake makes a tasty and merry (if a bit garish) coffeecake any time of the year.