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. Let's bite into it!
The king cake was originally made in France some 300 years ago in honor of the Epiphany.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 versions of the king cake are known to cultures throughout the world, New Orleans has laid hold to it, managing to turn a time honored part of a religious celebration into an entire season of pageantry and 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. The legend goes that in 1872, the King of Rex chose the Mardi Gras colors of purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power, to honor the colors of the house of the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov. If true, fantastic; but how did purple, green and gold end up on top of the king cake? Honestly, we may never know who did it first. What we do know is that we fell in line and in love with the custom... until recently. Now, an increasing number of rabble-rousers are 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, usually held at the end of January, 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. LA Boulangerie has the Elvis, topped with cured bacon and marshmallows, filled with bananas and peanut butter and a little piggy hidden inside. The Cook Shop has even joined in on the fun, partnering with TM Breads & Pastries' to create the King Creole- a buttery croissant dough stuffed with vegetables and cheeses, laced with tomato sauce. Our Creole seasoning helps to make the flavor sore! Welcome to king cake for dinner! So what makes a king cake a king cake? Some bakeries sell them year round and change the theme to fit the holiday season. Others sell them during the carnival season, but they're barely recognizable. At the end of the day, 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
Antoine's Famous Cakes (Multiple Locations)- 1300 Stumpf Blvd, Gretna, LA 504.368.6222
Manny Randazzo King Cakes- 3515 N. Hullen St., Metairie LA 504.456.1476
Nonna Randazzo's Bakery- 925 E. Judge Perez Dr., Chalmette, LA 504.684.0090
Maurice French Pasteries- 3501 Hessmer Ave., Metairie LA 504.885.1526
Hi-Do Bakery- 439 Terry Pkwy., Terrytown, LA 504.366.6555
Croissant D'Or Patisserie- 617 Ursulines Ave., NOLA 504.524.4663
Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery- 14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., NOLA 504.254.0214
TM Breads & Pastries- Traditional and Nouveaux- 335 Baronne St. NOLA 504.302.7234
Norma's Sweets Bakery- 2925 Bienville, St., New Orleans, LA 504.309.5401
Coffee Science- 410 S. Broad St., New Orleans, LA 504.814.0878
District Donuts- 2209 Magazine St. NOLA 504.570.6905
Wishing Town Bakery Cafe- 3327 Severn Ave., Metairie, LA 504.885.8272
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery- 2440 Chartres St. NOLA 504.943.0010
La Boulangerie- 4600 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 504.269.3777
Shaya Restaurant- 4213 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 504.891.4213
Joe's Cafe Coffee & Donuts (Multiple Locations)- 3616 N. Causeway Blvd., Metairie, LA 504.301.3400
EVERYTHING: King cakes from many of our local bakeries
King Cake Hub- 3940 Thalia St., New Orleans, LA 504.766.8868
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.