Americans celebrates the new year with countless diets and lifestyle resolutions, but many people across the world, particularly those from predominantly Catholic countries, celebrate the calendar change with a sweet pastry known as king cake. Some associate it with Mardi Gras, others with the celebration of Epiphany.
King cake is traditionally eaten on January 6 in honor of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which historically marks the arrival of the three wise men/kings in Bethlehem who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus. (The plastic baby hidden inside king cakes today is a link to this story.) King cake also appears on tables throughout the Carnival season, which runs from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The pastry goes by different names around the world, and comes in varying shapes and styles.
If you’re in New Orleans during Carnival season, look out for the plastic baby hiding inside your colorful slice of King Cake. It symbolizes an infant Jesus, and he’s your ticket to honorary kinghood!
The name King Cake speaks about volumes of this unusual dessert: the ring-shaped brioche reveals rich fillings like sweet cream cheese or pecan praline.
Louisianans almost always decorate the top in the Mardi Gras colors green, gold, and purple, which respectively representing faith, power, and justice made from dyed sugar and icing. On top, a paper crown sometimes garnishes the cake, while inside a plastic baby Jesus awaits one lucky consumer!
No. The original King Cake baker not made a mistake! He intentionally hided a prize inside a pastry, this custom has ancient origins and it begins with the Roman belief that fava beans were magical. During Saturnalia, a festival that honored the Roman god of agriculture, celebrants cast their votes for a mock king using fava beans.
By the Middle Ages, this evolved into baking the bean into a cake on the Christian holiday of Epiphany, and all we know that it is a celebration that honors when the three kings brought gifts for baby Jesus.
So Christians shifted the tradition away from paganism by replacing the bean with a small object that represented Jesus.
Throughout the centuries, the rule still stood that whoever found the bean or trinket became “king,” also known as “Lord of Misrule.” But with great power comes great responsibility: the new “king” gets to wear a paper crown, but he’s also tasked with providing the next pastry, paying for everyone’s drinks, or hosting next year’s party!
The baby inside the king cake is such an important tradition that each year during Carnival, the New Orleans’ NBA team unveils a seasonal King Cake Baby mascot (which is absolutely terrifying, by the way!).
King Cake is New Orleans’ version of the French pastries known as galette and gâteau des rois, traditionally served on Epiphany on January 6.
For Christians in Louisiana, Epiphany doesn’t just continue the celebration of Christ’s birth, but it also marks the beginning of Carnival, a last opportunity to party hard before Lent whisks away indulgence in February.
On Mardi Gras morning, partygoers down thick slices of King Cake with beer for breakfast!
But this unusual treat isn’t just an accessory to holiday cheer: King Cake has also its own festival and It’s also inspired a collection of flavored vodkas.
From the Middle Ages to the modern Carnival season, where participants still elect a Lord of Misrule, every can celebrate!