Why King Cake Is So Much More Than An Aggressively Decorated Dessert

Photo: Charles Curtis/Duluth News-Tribune/Getty Images.
The traditions of Mardi Gras were clearly founded on an ethos that speaks to all of us: Go big or go home. The greatest example of this is easily the King Cake — that massive, ring-shaped confection drenched in purple, green, and gold sugar or icing. Although the beignet gives it a run for its money, no other treat so beautifully embodies the excess that accompanies Mardi Gras celebrations. But the King Cake is much more than a garish dessert. In fact, it's a Christian tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.
Although we most closely associate King Cakes with Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday, this is actually the last day that it's appropriate to eat it. King Cake "season" officially starts on January 6, when Christians celebrate Epiphany, which honors the Three Wise Men (or Kings) who traveled far to see baby Jesus. People held parties to eat their King Cakes in celebration of the Three Kings and to enjoy one last treat before Lent started after Fat Tuesday.
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So, that's why it's called a King Cake — but that doesn't explain the little baby-shaped figurine hidden somewhere inside every King Cake. If you've never tried one, let this be your warning to chew carefully.
The baby was only added to the mix (literally, we suppose) thanks to New Orleans bakery McKenzie's, which started hiding them in their King Cakes in the 1950s. Those babies stuck and ultimately added another layer to the cake's longstanding tradition. Whoever ends up with the baby is considered "lucky" and must host next year's King Cake party. (But if you aren't a fan of party-planning, we'd argue this is hardly a sign of luck.)
Depending on the region, recipes for King Cakes vary wildly. Where Portuguese King Cakes are filled with candied fruit, the French galette des rois is made with puff pastry dough and filled with almond cream. Regardless of your preferred interpretation, you can probably order one online, though you might have to wait until March. And if you don't, we promise we won't tell anyone you're breaking the rules.
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