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Eatymology: King Cake

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Eatymology: King Cake
Written by Matt Dobie | Photo by Chris Granger

King Cake

[kING-kāk]

n: a cake popular during Mardi Gras, traditionally prepared with a sweet filling and baked with a prize hidden inside

New Orleans may be renowned for its hearty gumbos and gravy-soaked po’ boys, but the Crescent City also fosters a tradition specifically catered to the sweet tooth. Commencing on January 6, or King’s Day, and running until the raucous revelers on Fat Tuesday have sipped their last sup,’tis the season for king cake. Modern versions are often brioche-style cakes, streaked with layers of buttery-cinnamon filling and sometimes made even sweeter with an added layer of raw sugar crystals in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

A classic French puff-pastry style is pictured here, but king cakes can also come braided, and can even include a filling of cream cheese, pudding, or fruit compote. While the filling may be one surprise, there’s yet another secret hiding within the doughy goodness: a plastic baby. Yes, that’s right. The tradition of hiding a prize inside the king cake dates back to seventeenth century France and even earlier into Greco-Roman polytheism. What began with baking in a red bean, evolved into more and more extravagant treats, including valuables like coins, diamonds, and gold. It wasn’t until Donald Entringer, owner of the popular New Orleans bakery McKenzie’s, began baking miniature china dolls into his king cakes in the 1950s that figurines became the prevalent tradition.

Today, a plastic infant representing the baby Jesus is most common, and the partygoer whose slice contains the trinket is bestowed with good luck and crowned king or queen of the party. But this double-edged distinction also renders the lucky cake eater responsible for the next king cake, thus perpetuating the tradition now popular throughout the whole of the South. Indulge while you can, for soon comes the piety of Lent. Until then, let them eat cake.

King Cake