King cake is to Mardi Gras what pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving, ginger bread is to Christmas, beer is to Octoberfest… you get my drift. It is the one food that must be consumed (and consumed often) during the nearly two-month Mardi Gras season. (Did you think Mardi Gras was all about one day? No, there’s nearly two months of celebration!)
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What is a king cake?
I get this question a lot. What is it? What’s it made of? What’s the meaning behind it?
The best way to simply and quickly describe a king cake to first timers: it’s sort of like a large cinnamon roll wreath with icing and sugar on top. That’s the dumbed down version.
A king cake is cinnamon filled dough in the shape of a hollow circle (like a wreath) topped with glazed sugar icing and sprinkled with purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power) colored sugar. There are many variations, often including cream cheese filling and/or icing. Fruit fillings (or fruit and cream cheese) and pecans are also popular.
Why a King Cake?
The “King’s Cake” represents the three kings, or wise men, who brought gifts to baby Jesus (the Epiphany). Baked inside each king cake is a small coin, bean, or baby figurine (you got it, that’s baby Jesus).
I’ve only ever seen them with a plastic baby, and nowadays, with lawsuits what they are, the baby is usually on the outside of the king cake so some unwitting customer doesn’t choke on or swallow the plastic holy baby.
Whoever receives the baby in their cake is the “King.” The prize? You get to fork over the dough (no pun intended) and buy the king cake for the next party.
Growing up in Louisiana, we always had king cake at school, usually on Fridays. Whoever got the plastic baby in their piece was in charge of bringing the king cake the following week (in theory). Sometimes we had a lot more than one king cake a week. There were Girl Scout meetings and different classroom period teachers all wanting to share in the fun.
Living away from Louisiana, it’s a little trickier to get my hands on a king cake. Although, ever since I moved away about 11 years ago, I’ve always managed to score at least one king cake a year somehow. When I lived in DC, I’d get them from my mom, who mailed them to each of her children. Last year, my mother-in-law sent us one to Nashville.
This year? Well, let’s just say I’ve discovered every king cake source in town, from the Publix (grocery store) to favorite bakeries like Merriddee’s Breadbasket to a local pastry chef from New Orleans who makes them to order. When my sis-in-law told me about Nicole Wolfe’s fabulous creations, I went a little overboard. I’ve already ordered/devoured three…. and they were good (is that my prenatal sweet-tooth kicking in??)
Filling flavors we’ve tried: cream cheese (the best, in my opinion), blueberry, and maple pecan bacon (which was a little strange and not too much to our tastebuds’ liking). She also makes almond, raspberry, lemon, bourbon cherry, and mascarpone variations. If I wasn’t terrified of giving myself gestational diabetes, I’d order the almond and mascarpone next.
Well, as they say, enjoy all the gluttony until Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday). Just make sure to give it all up the next day for Lent. That’s what the good Catholics do, anyway…. I might just have a piece or two afterwards.