New Orleans, LA—Every U.S. city has cinnamon rolls. But come this time of year, New Orleans thrives on a cinnamon-roll-like pastry that sparkles with far greater character and color, as if the chef had gone on a bender. This pastry is a time-worn city tradition known as King Cake.
In New Orleans, King Cake is as much an exclusive feature of Mardi Gras season as the costumes and the parades. Like Mardi Gras itself, cake-eating season begins on January 6 and extends through Fat Tuesday--or Mardi Gras day--which this year is February 9. January 6 is the twelfth day following Christmas, and is known throughout Christendom as "King's Day" or "Epiphany," since it was the day that the three wise men brought baby Jesus gifts. Eating this cake has long been a way to celebrate the day throughout Europe, and the tradition was passed onto New Orleans because of its French and Spanish roots.
So what is King Cake? It began in 12th-century France as a stripped-down pastry sprinkled with sugar, and according to an NPR report, has largely remained as such over there. But the concept was transported to New Orleans in the 1870s, and like so many other things about this city, was taken to new creative heights. Although versions vary by store, King Cakes are thin, multi-layered pastries infused with cinnamon. The pastries themselves are usually a cross between a brioche, a coffee cake, and a donut. Their insides are usually left hollow, and filled with any number of ingredients—praline, cream cheese, fruit jelly, or pecans--although some come plain. The pastry's exterior is glazed in icing, and sprinkled with colored sugar. Mardi Gras' official colors are green, purple and gold, to represent, respectively, Faith, Justice and Power. The sugar on King Cakes are divided into these three colors, and while each section tastes the same, people here are superstitious about their chosen color. Given the mix of ingredients, eating King Cake can be a messy affair, producing a multi-colored soup of sweetness.
Throughout my time here, I've noticed King Cakes advertised on billboards, buses and the radio. I've found King Cake-flavored lattes, smoothies and vodka. Different versions are sold metro-wide, coming from specialized bakeries, and large food retailers like Rouses and Walmart.
During the season, King Cake is commonly found in offices, churches and social clubs, with staffers bringing new cakes daily. There are even area families who throw King Cake-themed parties. Each season, roughly 750,000 cakes are consumed in New Orleans, and as I discovered while traveling this week, they are common in culturally-similar Gulf Coast cities like Mobile, AL and Biloxi, MS.
Perhaps the highlight of these cakes is the plastic baby inside, meant to represent Jesus. Whoever serves the cake puts this figurine inside, and whoever eats that slice will supposedly have good fortune—and a mandate to buy the next cake.
King Cake can be bought by the slice in many establishments, but full-size ones are usually as big as normal cakes. They come in a contorted oval shape, representing the circuitous route that the wise men took to find baby Jesus. Prices range from about $7 at grocery stores, to $22 at specialty shops. The best-known stores are Haydel's Bakery, in the city, and Maurice French Pastries and Manny Randazzo King Cakes, in neighboring Metairie. However, the debate about which one is best remains heated.
On January 31st, Oschner Hospital for Children hosted a King Cake Festival downtown, to raise money and determine New Orleans' best cake. About 12,000-15,000 showed up to vote on samples from several dozen establishments. For the second straight year, the crown went to Maurice's Bourbon Street King Cake.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.] [Part two in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different. Here's part one, about Second Lines; part three, about Mardi Gras Balls; and part four, about "everything else".]
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