A Brief History of the King Cake (and Where to Buy It)
Carnival season (filled with beaded necklaces, costumes, floats, parades, and celebration) may be well underway, but we still have a one burning question: What’s the deal with these King Cakes? So we decided to decode this age-old tradition once and for all. Read on to see what we’ve found out (and where you can get yours).
For starters, the King Cake is literally ages old, some say it dates back to the Middle Ages, originating in Old World France and Spain. In religious tradition, it has been part of a Christian celebration called the Epiphany, which took place this year on January 6. The festival marks the coming of three Magi (or kings) to baby Jesus.
Everything from beans, coins, nuts, and peas have been used as a stand-in for the “king” baked into the cake. Adding a trinket of sorts is said to have been made popular by the Twelfth Night Revelers, a 19th century New Orleans social group who hosted the first Mardi Gras ball of the season, according to NPR. Today, you often find a small “king” figurine baked into bread-like or flakey pastry that is twisted and shaped into wreath-like ovals. Whoever receives the special piece containing the figure is said to have good luck.
Not all King Cake traditions are the same. Some, like the French, serve cakes that are more like a flakey pastry that can be filled with cream, fruits, or chocolate. The Bulgarians serve their version on New Year’s Eve while the Greeks prefer New Years Day. In America, they are more often seen adorning bakery windows in the days leading up to the start of Lent. In New Orleans specifically, the lucky person to find the king piece is “king for the day” meaning he or she must host next year’s celebration and provide the next cake.
The usual frostings and sprinkles that adorn these cakes (at least in New Orleans during Mardi Gras) recognize the royal colors of green for faith, purple for justice, and gold for power. If you’re intrigued (and hungry for a bite or maybe a bit of good fortune) you can have a king cake shipped to you anywhere in the U.S. from one of our favorite NOLA shops like Pouports Bakery, Manny Randazzo King Cakes, Joe Gabino’s Bakery, or Sucré.