The cake is the tradition of the twelfth night and the carnival
When Dominick Lee was in elementary school in the 1990s, every year for Twelfth Night, the teacher brought a royal cake to share with the class. He and his comrades would be waiting for their slices – decorated with purple, gold, and green sugars – eager to see which room had a little plastic baby tucked inside. Whoever found it was responsible for bringing another royal cake to school the following week, and the cycle would continue through the carnival season, until Mardi Gras.
âIt was a truly wonderful childhood memory, and it has stuck with me to this day,â said Lee, a chef born and raised in New Orleans.
Almost everyone in New Orleans has a similar story. Kings cake is a precious candy and a beloved carnival tradition.
And in New Orleans, where Catholicism is still the predominant religion, the Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 6, takes on deep meaning. The date – also known to the world as Epiphany or the Day of the Three Kings – marks the time when the three wise men, or kings, reached the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Celebrations vary, but in New Orleans, Twelfth Night also marks the start of the pre-Lent carnival season, a cycle of baking and consuming king cakes, with the arrival of many plastic babies.
Poppy Tooker, an author from New Orleans, says the king’s cake dates back to ancient Rome and the Saturnalia festival, a celebration of the god Saturn.
âTradition has it that they bake the bean in the cake, which really makes it look like a king’s cake,â says Tooker. “When Rome collapsed, like so many in the Catholic Church in Europe, they took these pagan customs and adapted them.”
Kings cakes are revered in New Orleans, so much so that it is considered sacrilege to eat one before January 6. Until the 18th century, kings cakes were not widely eaten until this day, to mark the end of the Christmas season. In the early 1900s, however, some carnival krewes (as parade planners are known) such as the Twelfth Night Revelers began to throw balls, where they served the king’s cake, selecting the “king” or the “queen. According to the guest who found the little trinket, or bean, hidden in the cake.
The New Orleans version of the cake, which Tooker says was probably developed by 18th-century French and Spanish settlers, initially followed a basic structure: oval-shaped pastries consisted of brioche dough with notes of vanilla and were covered with sweet crystals and stuffed with bean, initially a bean. In the 19th century, porcelain dolls were the bean of choice; In the 20th century, McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes, a local chain that closed in 2001, became one of the first commercial bakeries to use a plastic baby, and more quickly followed. Cakes also became sweeter and more Danish as Kings Cakes became commercially popular.
“It was the iconic dessert of the time,” says food historian Lolis Eric Elie.
Today, baking has come to life in New Orleans. Gambino’s serves a Bavarian king cream cake and a praline and cream cheese king cake, among other varieties. Bywater Bakery experimented with savory flavors by offering cakes filled with blood sausage, crayfish or spinach and artichoke dip. The classic version of Haydel’s Bakery is a popular favorite. And several bakeries, such as La Boulangerie and Croissant D’or, serve galettes des rois.
âKings Cake Season is that truly community experience that I think defines New Orleans Mardi Gras in general,â says Matt Haines, author of âThe Big Book of King Cake,â an archive of some of the tastiest cakes in town.
Dong Phuong Bakery in East New Orleans embraced this idea. Vietnamese bakery started baking in 2008, selling around 100 cakes for the entire season. Now he is averaging around 50,000.
âWe wanted to create an offer for the community,â explains Linh Garza, president of the bakery. “But we wanted to adapt it to our community, and our tastes.”
Garza’s family opened the bakery in 1982 after immigrating as refugees to New Orleans. Dong Phuong has become a culinary respite for the Vietnamese community in the region. And Garza’s mother, Huong Tran, eventually became the mastermind behind the Bakery King’s Cake. The recipe opts for a cream cheese frosting and uses a flaky brioche dough, offering more moisture than the other versions, and a remarkably chewy bite. Tran, who previously worked as a dressmaker, added deep slashes to her cakes.
JosÃ© Castillo was 5 years old when his family arrived in New Orleans from Villanueva, Honduras, in 1981. After seeing the Three Kings tradition in school, he came home and begged his mother. , Norma Castillo, to buy him a royal cake.
“She said to me: ‘Really? We have just arrived in this country!'”
At Norma’s Sweets Bakery in the city center – Castillo runs this second location of his mother’s bakery – the royal cake has become a staple. Filled with guava and cream cheese and topped with a light layer of frosting, Norma’s cake plays with the power of subtle sweetness, delivering a crunchy, fruity bite to anyone who’s indulging in.
âWe wanted to give the community a taste of the Latin product,â says Castillo of their use of the guava filling. “Guava is our strawberry in Honduras, and we wanted to do something that allows us to be part of the community, but also reflects where we come from.”
In the French Quarter, Brennan’s has found a pleasant intersection between simplicity and innovation. The historic restaurant began selling king cakes nationwide in 2021, including a traditional take with hints of cinnamon and butter in every bite.
âIt really is just a fun time for the city,â says Ralph Brennan, an owner. “We all have these amazing memories of eating our favorite Kings Cake and going on the parade, and we want to be a part of those memories for the next generation.”