Every year, typically at the beginning of January, you'll start to see ring-shaped cakes crop up at the supermarkets, all decorated with that same familiar purple, green, and yellow color scheme. Those are traditional king cakes, a fundamental and expected part of Mardi Gras and the pre-Lenten celebrations. They're especially popular in New Orleans, of course.
Many may wonder about the origins of this nobly named sweet, or about its colors, or about the strange, plastic baby that's hidden inside of it. Yes, the king cake has a complex story of its own.
King Cake Season Runs From Epiphany to Fat Tuesday
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is a Christian holiday that takes place between Epiphany, January 6, and Ash Wednesday. This two-month window—Carnival—is prime king cake season. The treat is an essential part of the Feast of Epiphany, but many Catholics will indulge in it at least once a week until Mardi Gras.
The "King" in King Cake Refers to the Three Magi
The name of said cake has biblical origins. It is believed that the Magi, or Three Wise Men, visited the infant Jesus about two weeks after his birth, which is why the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. This day closes the Christmas season and kicks off Carnival, which runs until Mardi Gras. The king cake, being the traditional food used to celebrate the visit of the Three Kings, is named after them and made into the shape of their crowns.
There Are Many International Versions of the King Cake
Not all king cakes are the same, though. Different places have different versions of the biblical dessert.
- New Orleans, United States: This is the version that most Americans know, consisting of a ring of dough topped with purple, gold, and green sugar, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras, which represent justice, power, and faith.
- Spanish-speaking countries: In Spanish-speaking countries, bakeries make the rosca de reyes, a sweet bread topped with candied fruit.
- France: In France, Quebec, and Belgium, bakeries serve the galette de rois, which is a puff pastry filled with almond cream.
- Germany and Switzerland: Dreikönigskuchen, sweet buns made with almonds and raisins, is the traditional king cake of Germany and Switzerland.
- England: In old England, Twelfth Night cake (essentially a fruitcake decorated with frosting) was the popular dish served at the Feast of Epiphany.
A Baby Will be Hidden in the Cake
In the olden days, a small bean was placed in the cake as it baked to symbolize the baby Jesus. Over time, bakers began using feves, which literally means beans, but were actually porcelain figurines depicting an actual baby. The feves were so ornate and beautiful that a museum in France actually has a collection of hundreds of them. Today, most bakeries utilize a plastic baby doll (sometimes served on the side of the cake so that nobody breaks a tooth).
If You Find the Hidden Baby, Then You Buy The Next Cake
As the tradition goes, the person who finds the hidden baby inside the king cake receives a paper crown, is declared king for the day, and is also responsible for buying the next cake. In many places, the youngest child sits underneath the table and divvies out the pieces of cake so it remains a mystery of who received the piece with the baby inside.