For most Americans, the advent of the new year is a time to make resolutions and to trim the waistlines expanded by Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities, In party loving New Orleans, however, the first week of January begins King Cake season, a traditional gastronomic prelude to the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations. Between January 6 (Three King’s Day) and Mardi Gras, New Orleans bakers produce thousands of King Cakes, resplendently decorated in the Mardi Gras color purple, green and gold. Hidden in each oblong of braided coffee-cake dough is a bean or plastic baby; custom dictates that whoever finds it must give the next King Cake party. And one Mardi Gras organization even uses a King Cake tradition to choose the queen of its annual ball. Hundreds of King Cake parties are held in New Orleans every year. After the cake is served, the cry “I’ve got the baby” announces that a party-goer has received the slice of cake containing the baby or bean. That guest is King or Queen of the party, an honor that includes playing host at the following week’s King Cake festivity, where a successor is chosen in the same manner. King Cake enthusiasm also extends to offices, which serve the cakes at coffee breaks, and to parties for children whose birthdays fall during this time (youngsters often find that a thoughtful mother has arranged for a baby to appear in every piece of cake).
On January 6, New Orleans bakeries, filled with the sweet, spicy bouquet of King Cakes, are besieged by throngs of devotees eager to sample the first King Cakes of the year.
This year New Orleans bakers estimate that they will take more than a quarter of a million King Cakes from their ovens before the season ends on Fat Tuesday. The traditional cinnamon flavored cakes are the most requested, but in recent years, bakeries have broadened the King Cake selection by adding to their recipes. Apple, cheese, bourbon, and praline cakes are just a few of the many varieties now available. The cakes used to be a strictly local specialty, but they are now becoming much more widely known.
The New Orleans tradition of celebrating the feast of the three Magi with a special cake is rooted in several European cultures. As far back as the first half of the sixteenth century, France commemorated King’s Day, which falls twelve days after Christmas, with a Twelfth Night cake. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV took part in at least one Twelfth Night festival where a bean or ceramic figure was hidden in the cake, also known as a gateau des Rois (King’s Cake).
The Twelfth Night cake custom is still widely observed in France, where families and friends gather around one of the different cakes served at King cake soirees. In some regions the couronne, made from brioche dough topped with a fruit-festooned sugar glaze, is favored. In Paris and other major cities, a fancier galette filled with frangipane (almond cream paste), prevail.
“In most areas of France, a tiny plastic king or queen is baked into the galette des Rois, but in some rural towns you can still find the little ceramic toys and animals that have been inserted in the cake’s for hundreds of years.” Jean-Luc Albian, a French pastry chef who bakes the French-style cakes in his suburban New Orleans shop, Maurice French Pastries. “When we have a King cake party in France, we refer to the galette de Rois tradition as pulling the king or queen,” he continues. “The guest who receives a serving with the trinket hidden inside picks a consort. Then the pair, who will host the next King’s Day Party, are crowned with the gold and silver paper diadems that adorn the cake. In France, King’s Day celebrations end on January 31.”
France’s brioche-like couronne became the forerunner of New Orleans’s King Cake when Creoles, colonials of French and Spanish descent who settled in New Orleans, adopted the French Twelfth Night cake and blended it with the Spanish tradition of mounting a grand ball on Twelfth Night. By the end of the of the eighteenth century, party loving colonists had extended the tradition into an entire season of balls les bals des Rois (the balls of the Kings), which started on the Twelfth Night and ended on Mardi Gras. The King and Queen chosen the first night by finding the bean in the cake were responsible for the holding the next ball, where the luck of the bean decides their successors.
The colors of purple, green and gold first appeared on the cakes after 1872, when the Rex krew (organization) selected those colors for its opening Mardi Gras parade. The colors came to stand for Mardi Gras and took on symbolic meanings: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.