THE GREAT KING CAKE DEBATE
by Kara Johnson
Have you heard about the great king cake controversy? There’s an ongoing debate about this delightful delicacy. What actually makes a king cake a king cake? Can any pastry topped with purple, green and gold sprinkles claim the title? Is it simply a sweet treat, or can it be the main course? There are so many new takes on this old tradition.
The king cake was originally made in France some 300 years ago in honor of the Epiphany. The Epiphany, celebrated throughout Western Europe, occurs on January 6th, 12 days after Christmas, and is also known as the Twelfth Night. It commemorates when the three kings visited the baby Jesus. In New Orleans, it also signifies the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. The first king cakes, the French version, are believed to have been a puff pastry filled with an almond paste. There was no icing, nor colored sugar on top. Today, there are three popular variations of this baked good in France, dictated by the region. In northern France, you can enjoy the galette des rois with a fragipane (almond cream or paste), or apple filling. In western France, you’ll find the sweet crust pastry known as sable galette. Finally, in southern France, you’ll be served the tortell. This is also the Spanish version of a king cake. It’s a twisted brioche dough that is formed into a circle or oval. Some say the shape symbolizes endless faith, while others claim it represents a crown. In any case, this version is more closely aligned with the New Orleans king cake. In other countries, the tortell is usually topped with candied fruit and sugar.
And what about the baby? For centuries throughout Europe, a bean, piece of candy, fruit or some other small trinket symbolizing the Christ child has been hidden in king cakes. Here in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast region, a small figurine of a baby is usually hidden inside the pastry. The person who gets the piece of cake with the baby is said to have good luck, is the king or queen of the party and is responsible for getting the next king cake. I fondly remember that as a little girl, whenever my great-uncle Emile would get the baby, he’d choose me to be the princess. I have to admit, I was quite honored. Usually plastic, the babies are also sometimes made of porcelain and have even been made of precious metals such as gold. McKenzie’s Bakery is given credit for being the first to hide the plastic babies we’ve come to know and love in its king cakes in 1951.
Although the king cake is not just a New Orleans tradition signaling the coming of Mardi Gras, this city has managed to take a time honored part of a religious celebration and turn it into an entire season of fun. Here, king cakes are eaten throughout the Carnival season from January 6th to Mardi Gras day, which is always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In 1872 the King of Rex chose the Mardi Gras colors of purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. These were the colors of the house of the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov, and they were chosen in his honor. So how did purple, green and gold end up on top of the king cake? Honestly, I don’t know who did it first, but just about everyone in this region does it now. There are, however, an increasing number of rabble-rousers intent on recreating our notions of the king cake. This mainstay in our culture is ever evolving, and these changes are the subject of the great debate. Unlimited concoctions with flavors ranging from praline to cream cheese to bourbon and pineapple are now stuffed into the center of king cakes. These flights of fancy are only the beginning. Today, it seems that just about anything goes.
The King Cake Festival will be held on January 26th and features king cake beignets, king cake donuts and even king cake cheeseburgers. Shaya has it’s version that is a babka instead of a brioche. It’s topped with a glaze made of sea salt and caramel and has a tiny pomegranate instead of a baby inside. There are also boudin king cakes made of savory rings of braided dough filled with rice-and-ground-meat sausage and topped with pork cracklin crumbs and cane syrup. Last year, Cochon Butcher had the Elvis, topped with cured bacon and marshmallows, filled with bananas and peanut butter and a little piggy hidden inside. So what makes a king cake a king cake? Some bakeries sell them year round and change the theme to fit the holiday season. I could go on and on. Whether you’re a purist and prefer the cinnamon laced brioche or you’re an adventurist ready to give something new a try, I guarantee there’s something out there just for you. I’ll let you be the judge. Here are some places where you can taste out your theory:
Antoine’s Annex- 513 Royal St. NOLA 504.525.8045
Manny Randazzo King Cakes- 3515 N. Hullen St., Metairie LA 504.456.1476
Adrian’s Bakery- 4710 Paris Ave. NOLA 504.875.4302
Maurice French Pasteries- 3501 Hessmer Ave., Metairie LA 504.885.1526
The Buttermilk Drop-1781 N. Dorgenois St., NOLA 504.252.4538
Croissant D’Or Patisserie- 617 Ursulines Ave., NOLA 504.524.4663
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery- 14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., NOLA 504.254.0214
Salon by Sucre- 3025 Magazine St. NOLA 504.520.8311
Cochon Butcher- 930 Tchoupitoulas St. NOLA 504-588-2123
Willa Jean- 611 O’Keefe St. NOLA 505.509.7334
Shaya- 4213 Magazine St. NOLA 504.891.4213
District Donuts- 2209 Magazine St. NOLA 504.570.6905
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery- 2440 Chartres St. NOLA 504.943.0010
Twins Burgers and Sweets- 2801 Johnston St., Lafayette, LA 337.268.9488
So what do you think? Are king cakes with all these other ingredients still king cakes? Explore the possibilities and let us know what your favorites are. We’ll post the results in time for Lundi Gras!