A Cake Fit for a King
It's that time of year again: king cake season! It's the period of those brightly-colored rings of bakery bliss that everyone loves. King cake time is a monumental occasion as anticipated by some as football season, the holiday season, hunting season… or any other season of note. Why shoot at bucks when you could sit around and eat these exquisite treats instead? …But what exactly is a king cake and where did the tradition come from?
Having an Epiphany
In the Catholic religion, the Epiphany occurs on January 6 and marks the end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve through January 5, which is therefore known as the Twelfth Night. The Epiphany also marks the beginning of our carnival season, leading up to Mardi Gras, and then lent and eventually Easter. This is also significant because it signifies that it is now king cake time! In other words, the Epiphany bridges the gap between Christmas and Mardi Gras… between eggnog and king cake. The beginning of the New Year is traditionally the time when everyone starts out with the conviction to lose weight and eat better. But it's really no wonder no one can stick to their New Year's Resolutions. We just finally cleared eggnog season, and we're straight into the temptation of delicious king cakes. No reprieve for the health-conscious, that's for sure. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, with New Year's Resolutions, and possibly with king cake. But that said, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, if my true love wants to give me twelve king cakes, I would consider it to be a pretty darn successful holiday. Sure beats the heck out of lumps of coal or a Chia Pet.
If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake…
The king cake has a very religious background. It gets its name from the fact that the Epiphany is said to be the day the three Wise Men paid their well-documented visit to the baby Jesus. A cake was baked in honor of the arrival of these Three Kings (of Orient are?), and aptly named a king cake. The cake's round or oval ring shape (hollow in the middle) symbolizes the kings' crown. Even our iconic Mardi Gras colors of purple (symbol of justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power), are meant to be representative of jewels you would find in your average royal crown. Thus the cakes are usually decorated in these colors.
Due to its Jesus connection, every king cake these days comes with a little plastic baby inside which is meant to symbolize the baby Jesus. The babies are usually plastic, but in certain rare circumstances a special edition or fancy collectible Jesus might be produced, sometimes in porcelain or metal. Most are your garden variety pale whitey Jesus, though some are of other races or non-human colors such as purple, green and gold.
Every king cake these days comes with a little plastic baby inside which is meant to symbolize the baby Jesus.
Historically, king cakes used to come stuffed with a coin or more often, a bean, to signify Jesus. But today, like so many things, it's all gone plastic… These mass-produced, synthetic little tykes certainly say "baby Jesus" more than a bean ever could, and have become the norm ever since the 1950's. Plastic babies have become recognizable emblems forever associated with Mardi Gras-- with their tiny plastic arms outstretched like a baby who is begging to be picked up. They probably just want to get out of the cake.
It's a piece of cake
The ritual of hiding and then finding the baby hidden in the king cake has become a traditional fun little party game. Countless king cake parties are held in homes and workplaces alike—with a total of approximately 750,000 king cakes consumed annually-- during the period from the end of December until Mardi Gras. Every time, the cake is cut and randomly distributed, while each recipient waits to see if they end up with the plastic baby shoved into their particular slice of the cake. What happens then? Though considered to be an honor, the person who finds the baby really gets hit with a double whammy. Not only do they risk a broken tooth or, worse, choking to death on the thing, but they also get strapped with the financial and organizational burden of having to plan and fund the next King Cake party (which naturally includes providing the next cake). On the flip side, it's all in the name of fun, and it is an excuse for continued partying, after all. Laissez les bons temps rouler and all that. Not to mention, the baby-finder gets to be king or queen for the day… or at least for the duration of the party, and is supposed to be blessed with good luck. The fact that he or she gets the bonus of eating a big hunk of delightful king cake…well, that's just the icing on the cake.
History repeats itself
The king cake tradition began overseas, where the cakes and related festivities are still popular today in countries all across Europe. There are documented king cake parties on the other side of the pond as far back as the 1600's. When the Spanish and French came and settled in Louisiana, they brought their king cake customs with them (among other things that have proven to be useful contributions. Like jambalaya). The king cake rituals seem to have caught on in New Orleans by the 18th century, and we've been baking and eating and playing with beans and plastic Jesus ever since.
I've got fillings for you
A traditional, basic, run-of-the mill king cake is made from braided dough which most compare to brioche. It is usually filled with nothing more than cinnamon, which makes it nearly identical to a king-size cinnamon roll. Most king cakes are frosted with basic white icing, then topped off with sprinklings of colored sugar in the fine shades of Mardi Gras. My mama always told me it's what's on the inside that counts, and king cake is no exception. These days, bakeries seem to pride themselves on trying to outdo each other with outlandish flavors and fillings. The most common are fruits such as apple and strawberry, with cream cheese and Bavarian cream also being very popular. Other fairly simple fillings include praline, coconut, cherry, chocolate and pistachio. But that's nothing compared to the imagination and ingenuity displayed by some bakeries. Among the most interesting fillings I have ever seen are "gooey butter," chocolate chip cookie dough, and white chocolate bread pudding. And the originality prize goes to: Caluda King Cake's (of Harahan) Maple Bacon Pecan king cake.
Making a lot of dough
King cake production is big business. Besides the hundreds of thousands of cakes consumed locally during carnival season, bakeries and supermarkets ship the things around the country and around the world. Some bakeries whip out up to 3500 of the festive pastries every day. And what's more, king cake is not just for Mardi Gras anymore. The market has now expanded to include cakes of other colors, shapes, and occasions. There are red and green king cakes for Christmas. Red heart-shaped king cakes for Valentine's Day. Black and gold king cakes for game day parties and tailgating festivities. There are also single-serving mini versions good enough for one reveler, but you better buy an extra while you're at it (since you're sure to get the baby that way, you know that you're the one who's going to be obligated to buy the next cake). King cake consumption has extended beyond mere cake into king cake flavored vodka and ice cream, and even broadened beyond the realm of the edible-- to countless gadgets and souvenirs, jewelry, t-shirts, and other assorted merchandise. It'd be easy to spend a king's ransom.
Think about it: three quarters of a million king cakes every Mardi Gras. That's nearly enough king cake, of medium size, to stretch from here to Mobile, Alabama (home of the original Mardi Gras). And who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? With that much cake kicking around, the odds are in your favor that you'll be able to do exactly that… and in any number of unique and tempting flavors. I have a t-shirt that says, "There is nothing king cake can't fix". And I absolutely subscribe to that way of thinking. Who isn't in seventh heaven after downing a slice? Yup, there is definitely nothing that king cake can't fix… except for maybe love handles and tooth decay.