What’s a King Cake?

King Cake season is here!  You have probably seen them in grocery stores and bakeries.  Maybe you’re curious what they are, what they taste like, or what the colors mean.  And what’s with the plastic baby?  Much of the story of the King Cake is tied in to Christian (especially Catholic) religious traditions and symbology, but it can be a bit obscure if you aren’t steeped in the specific traditions the cake pays homage to.

First of all, the King Cake is the traditional cake of Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday).   Mardi Gras (and its analogues) are most often celebrated in heavily Catholic parts of the world, but Mardi Gras celebrations themselves are entirely secular and often celebrated by people with different or even no religious background or affiliation.  Mardi Gras itself has many names, but the French name is the one many of us in North America will be familiar with since the traditions of Louisiana will be most of our experience with the holiday, and the Louisianan variation of the King Cake is the one most of us will see this season and be familiar with.

Mardi Gras is a secular celebration that takes place the day before the beginning of Lent, which itself occurs forty days before Easter.  And because the exact date of Easter shifts, the exact date of Mardi Gras shifts with it.  Many people who celebrate Lent choose to give up something (often a vice) for the duration of the 40 days as a symbolic sacrifice meant to parallel the fasting of Jesus in the desert.  Popular Lenten sacrifices include sugar, alcohol, caffeine, meat, and other foods (though bad habits are often targets as well).  Because many people will be giving up things that they enjoy for the duration, the tendency to “binge” on a thing before giving it up gave rise to an entire celebration of binging.

The King Cake itself is meant to be both decadent and loaded with symbolism.  The Louisiana version of the King Cake is a bready “cake”, similar to French bread, that is filled with cinnamon and sometimes other sweet fillings.  Its taste is sometimes compared to a cinnamon roll, but tends to be quite a bit more doughy and chewy.  It’s covered in a powdered sugar icing and brightly colored sugar (most often purple, green, and gold colored).  A small baby figurine (or a bean if your baker is super traditional) is either hidden inside the cake or placed in the cake box for you to hide yourself.

In the Bible the Three Wise Men (or Magi) set out to find baby Jesus after he was born.  The journey took them twelve days.  In many Christian traditions, particularly Catholicism, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on December 25th with the birth of Jesus, and last until January 6th – the day the Wise Men would have arrived.  The hidden baby figurine is meant to represent the baby Jesus that they were searching for, and finding the baby shows that you are blessed with good luck and wisdom.  Depending on the circle of friends you have, finding the baby in the King Cake could mean that you are responsible for hosting the next party, or for bringing the next King Cake (since you’ve just been blessed with good luck, you should share it with all your friends).

If you’ve never had one, I hope that this helps you decide to pick one up.  Whether you’re celebrating Mardi Gras as part of a religious tradition or as a secular holiday, enjoying good food and good friends is at the center of it, and as long as you are doing that, you’re doing Mardi Gras right.  Whichever way you do it, laissez les bon temps rouler, and pass a good time, cher!

About the Author

Scott lives with his wife, mother, and son in Carrollton, TX. As a child, Scott lived in several places around the world including Indonesia, Switzerland, and Nigeria. As a young man, he began teaching martial arts and joined the US Army as a translator. Scott’s love of cooking with his family led them to open a local bakery, Dandelion Cheesecakes in 2013. When he isn’t spending time with his family, Scott is an avid gamer who enjoys both board games and video games.

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