The History and Symbolism of the New Orleans King Cake
One of my earliest memories is my father holding me up at a Mardi Gras parade when I was a toddler, balancing me with one hand and catching beads with the other.
One of my earliest memories of moving to North Carolina, after my family had been in New Orleans since the 1840s, was that our first Mardi Gras up here was marked by my first taste of king cake (that I was old enough to remember, anyway). It was probably the most delicious treat I had ever tasted, and I even ended up getting the baby inside. I was only about three years old.
This is the time of year when I flip back through my family albums, which depict our annual Mardi Gras celebrations through the years. I dust off my purple, green, and gold decorations, and, of course, I look forward to my next king cake party.
Overview of King Cake
January 6th marks the first day of Epiphany season. This time of year, in the Christian faith, celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus' physical manifestation to the gentiles. The occasion is better known in New Orleans as Carnival Season.
By any name, the season runs from Twelfth Night, the twelfth night after Christmas through Mardi Gras, which, of course, is the eve of Ash Wednesday.
The U.S. Gulf Coast is particularly well known for its many traditions commemorating the occasion. What began some three centuries ago as a simple French bread-type dough with sugar on top and a bean inside has grown to a staple of a full-scale celebration, taking us into a majestic world of costume, parade, and, of course, tasty treats.
The sugary French bread, which would become known as "king cake," was brought to the Southern United States in 1718 by Basque settlers. King cake parties along the Gulf Coast have a documented history as early as this. Though this was the year the city of New Orleans was founded, king cake, as a tradition, did not begin to take off there until the year 1870.
How Is It Made?
The modern day king cakes are often described as a cross between a cinnamon roll and a French croissant. Comparisons to coffee cake are among the other descriptions that arise. The king cake dough is usually made of sugar, salt, butter, eggs, and yeast, often with orange and/or lemon extracts giving it a very faint citrus-y kick. Before it is baked, liberally doused in cinnamon, braided, and twisted into its familiar oval shape, and after its baked, it is iced and sugared. The icing is often made of confectioner's sugar and milk, and the sugar, of course, is displayed in the alternating colors of purple, green, and gold all the way around. Sometimes, the cake boasts a filling such as fruit, Bavarian cream, or praline (another New Orleans favorite).
A plastic (originally porcelain) baby is placed inside the cake. While certain Mardi Gras krewes use it to determine their king and queen, the more widespread tradition is that whoever finds it is obligated to procure the king cake for the next party and/or host the next party.
One notable deviation from this iconic confection is the Zulu king cake, associated with one of the first exclusively African-American Mard Gras krewes. Their variation is distinctive for its topping of chocolate icing and stuffing of coconut, a nod to the krewe's most prized parade throw.
Symbolism of Colors and Shapes, With a Hint of New Orleans Lore
The king cake is somewhat an allegory of the Epiphany season and what it stands for. The extensive detailing that makes up what might seem like a wildly-decorated pastry is all meant to represent one thing or another, with some of these elements subject to several theories.
The colors on the king cake are recognized as the Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. They were chosen by one of Mardi Gras' premiere krewes, Rex, in 1872. While one widely accepted belief is that they were chosen to resemble the colors on a jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men who visited Jesus on Epiphany, others theorize that the colors were inspired by the house colors of the Russian Grand Duke, who happened to be visiting that same year.
- Purple = justice
- Green = faith
- Gold = power
The Oval Shape
The oval shape is also one that has a variety of theories behind its meaning. My father, a 5th generation New Orleans native, always understood it to symbolize eternity. It is also understood, however, to mimic the crown of a king, or symbolize the unity of faiths. Some even believe the shape originated to resemble the circular route the Magi took on their way to see the Christ child.
Probably the most self-explanatory of the king cake's characteristics, the tiny plastic baby hidden inside is symbolic of baby Jesus and his physical manifestation to the gentiles—a religious connection to Kings' Day.
In the past, trinkets such as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were used. As mentioned earlier, some Mardi Gras krewes determined who would be crowned king or queen by who wound up with the prize inside the king cake—which sometimes carried no religious connotation at all. One such krewe was the Twelfth Night Revelers during the 19th century, when slices of king cake, each containing a silver bean, save for one whose enclosed bean was gold, were distributed among its members. Whoever ended up with the gold bean in their king cake was queen.
Beyond the Carnival
Various New Orleans bakeries have expanded their king cake repertoire to cover every holiday, including Christmas, Easter, St. Paddy's Day, and 4th of July. Several bakeries, such as Haydel's, even offer a special black-and-gold king cake in a fleur-de-lis shape for Saints football season.
Though it sounds tempting, not everyone can jump on board with year-round consumption. Many New Orleanians believe king cake should not be consumed outside of Carnival Season. There is even a local superstition that if one enjoys king cake outside of its traditional time frame, it will rain on Mardi Gras.
Where to Buy and Best Recipes
- The Ultimate New Orleans King Cake Guide | New Orleans Local's Guide
For those fortunate enough to be in New Orleans this Mardi Gras, here is the ultimate guide to the countless establishments offering their unique spin on the king cake. And if you can't be there this season, some will even let you order online.
- Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Haydel's King Cake - NOLA Weekend
One of New Orleans' most famous bakeries shares their prized king cake recipe. I make this one every year at my family's request - I can promise you it's not too hard!
To find king cakes in your local area, either do a Google search or check your local Publix or Whole Foods.