King cake is one of the earliest, edible signs that it’s Mardi Gras time. Whether iced or sugared, traditional or stuffed with any number of fillings, king cakes have become big business, in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. They have also become a year-round commodity, sold and shipped to customers worldwide.
To many, it is near sacrilege to eat a slice before Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, also known as King’s Day – January 6. On that date, Christians commemorate the visit of the three wise men, or Magi, to Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem. The king cake originated in Europe as part of the religious celebration.
Inside was tucked a small object, usually a ring, a bean or later a pecan. The person who got the lucky slice became king or queen of the ball, and chose someone from the crowd as their partner. The two would reign as monarchs of the party, and would be responsible for hosting the next ball.
The custom has changed over the years, but the premise is the same. King cakes (now most often topped with purple, green and gold sugar to represent the colors of Mardi Gras) have become common sights in the workplace, at schools, parties – really anywhere 3 or more people are gathered this time of year. The beans, rings, porcelain dolls or pecans inside them were replaced by plastic baby dolls after World War II. Some say the baby was to represent the Christ child. Icing for king cakes came later, followed by all kinds of toppings and filling. Bakers’ creativity ran wild, and now you can get a king cake stuffed with nearly anything imaginable. You can also have it shipped worldwide, and ordering one is easier than ever, thanks to the internet.
Two Carnival organizations use the king cake to crown their royalty. The high society ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers includes the custom of hiding a gold bean inside a wooden version of a cake. Though the recipient is selected beforehand, the choice remains a mystery, since the queen does not know until she’s handed a “slice.”
Members of another group, the Phunny Phorty Phellows, enjoy king cakes on board the streetcar January 6, as they take to the streets to proclaim the arrival of the Carnival season. The man who selects the piece with the baby inside is proclaimed “the Boss.” The woman who does the same, is his queen. Everything old is new again in the world of king cakes. In recent years, French bakeries in the New Orleans area have begun selling cakes like the ones made in France: made from a brioche dough and containing an almond paste filling. It looks different but tastes wonderful.
Whatever the recipe, king cakes are a delicious piece of the past, and ever present sign of the season. Just remember the cardinal Carnival rule: you get the baby, you buy the next cake!
Laborde, Errol, Mardi Gras: A Celebration, New Orleans, Picayune Press, 1981Monaghan, Liz Scott, “Sugared Babies: How McKenzie’s Brought the Baby to King Cakes,” New Orleans Magazine, February 2003
KING CAKE -
1 box Pillsbury Hot Roll Mix, 16 ounces
1/2 cup granulated sugar for filling
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon for filling
1/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
Preheat oven to 375°F.Cream the butter, sugar, and cinnamon together until soft enough to spread easily.Follow directions on the Pillsbury Hot Roll Mix package.
Turn one half of the dough onto a floured surface, and roll into a 2- foot x 1- foot rectangle. Spread half of the butter and filling mixture on top of the dough.
Taking a good thing a step farther, many bakeries now stuff their King Cakes with ingredients such as apple, peach, or cherry pie filling, cream cheese, or chopped pecans with cinnamon sugar. Use your creative imagination.
Beginning at the wide edge, roll the dough toward you into a long cigar shape approximately 2 inches in diameter. Do the same with the second half of the dough. Place dough roll seam side down on a well greased baking sheet, and curve each roll, pinching the ends together to make oval ring. Cover, and let rise in warm place for 20 minutes or until doubled in size. Bake at 375°F for 15 to 20 minutes or until a straw inserted into the dough comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool.
2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 cup granulated sugar, large crystals
3 or 4 drops purple food coloring
3 or 4 drops green food coloring
3 or 4 drops yellow food coloring
Combine sugar, lemon juice, and water mixing until smooth. Slowly add more water by the teaspoon until it spreads as easily as a thin icing. Place 1/3 cup sugar in each of three small jars with lids. Add three drops of food coloring in each one. Cover with lid, and shake until color is evenly distributed throughout the large sugar crystals. Add food coloring, drop by drop until the desired shade is achieved.Coat the top of the oval king cake with glaze. Immediately sprinkle the colored sugars in 2- to- 3 inch alternating rows of purple, green and gold. Cut and serve.