The Kitchn: How to make a king cake for Mardi Gras
King cakes are named for the Three Kings of the Bible and were part of the Epiphany celebration at the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. They're variously called Galette des Rois in France, Rosca de Reyes in Spain, and vasilopita in Greece.
I spoke with Judy Walker, retired food editor for the New Orlean's Times-Picayune and author of "Cooking Up a Storm," about how the king cake tradition has taken shape in Louisiana. She told me that it was originally brought to the area by French settlers, but it wasn't until the 20th century that the cakes really took firm hold.
Two local bakeries, McKenzie's and Gambino's, were key in establishing the cultural significance of the king cakes. They started selling their versions of king cake during Carnival season, and the popularity just skyrocketed. Walker told me that king cakes from New Orleans' bakeries are now shipped all over the world, and it's become a major industry in the area.
What's with the baby?
Traditionally, the "baby" was actually a small dried bean or a pecan, which would get baked right into the cake. Finding the bean in your slice of cake means that you got to be king or queen for the day, and you are also responsible for bringing the next cake to keep the party going. (If you're in New Orleans, don't overlook this etiquette of bringing the next cake or you may find yourself with grumpy co-workers!)
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Since then, the bean has morphed into an actual toy baby figurine -- although Walker was quick to stop me when I mused that this must represent the baby Jesus. She said that all sorts of trinkets have been used in king cakes, and the baby figurine is just one that caught on particularly well.
King cakes every which way
New Orleans king cakes take after the Southern French tradition of a ring-shaped cake made with a rich yeasted bread similar to brioche, but as Walker explained to me, there is a lot of room for the individual baker's tastes and interpretation. Yes, the very original kings cake were fairly plain yeasted loaves, included no filling, and were barely sweet, but they have evolved with the times and with people's tastes.
These days, you can find -- or make! -- king cakes that are filled or unfilled, shaped in a plain circle or twisted into a braid, and topped with plain icing or covered with glittering sprinkles on every surface. The most popular versions are stuffed with a cream cheese filling or with a cinnamon filling, but Walker also talked about seeing king cakes filled with everything from pecan praline to goat cheese and apples. Walker says, "People like their own styles and often have loyalties to a particular bakery."