The traditional King Cake is an oval shaped twisted cake/bread covered with icing and colored sugar (usually purple, green and gold/yellow – the colors of Mardi Gras) and contains a plastic baby. Whoever gets the baby is supposed to buy the next King Cake or host the next party.
The King Cake gets its name from the biblical three kings and the shape and colorful decoration of the cake is meant to resemble a crown. January 6th, the beginning of Carnival is the date the three Kings visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem on the twelfth day following his birth. And although today’s King Cakes contain a plastic baby, back in the day they contained a bean or a coin.
The history of the King Cake dates back to the pre-Christian religions of Western Europe. During Harvest celebrations the man who got the bean or coin in the cake was treated like a king for the year. At the end of the year the man would be sacrificed and his blood given to the soil to ensure a successful harvest, fertility and prosperity.
When Christianity began to influence the religions that preceded it many of the customs were changed and incorporated into Christian tradition. The King Cake was one of these “changed” traditions so instead of human sacrifice the King Cake was used to celebrate the Magi.
The tradition of King Cakes was brought to New Orleans and the Southern United States by colonists from France and Spain in the 18th century. At this time the bean or coin was used to choose the queen of the ball. The queen would then select her king and she would host the next party and he would foot the bill.
Today King Cake or Mardi Gras parties are still held all along the Coast. King Cakes have evolved from simple cinnamon breads to decadent varieties including cream cheese, strawberry, apple, cherry, pralines and even cookies n’ cream.
But folks don’t delay because just like Carnival itself once Fat Tuesday is over so is the serving of King Cakes!