At the start of January every year, many grocery stores will start selling a ring-shaped cake with purple, green, and yellow sugar on it. For those from New Orleans, the King Cake is a fundamental and expected part of the pre-Lenten celebrations—others may wonder about the origins of the tasty treat.
If you have always wondered what the deal is with king cake and what it means, check out the 5 things you need to know about king cake.
King Cake Season Begins on January 6th (Epiphany) Until Fat Tuesday
Unlike most foods, king cakes are only served during a specific time of the year. King cake season is throughout Carnival, meaning between Epiphany, which is the 12th day after Christmas, until Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras).
In particular, king cake is an expected part of the Feast of Epiphany, though many Catholics will share king cake at least once a week until Mardi Gras.
The "King" in King Cake Refers to the Three Magi
The New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:1-12, describes the visit of the three kings (or magi) at Jesus' birth:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." . . . . When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is believed that the three Magi visited the infant Jesus about two weeks after his birth, which is why the Feast of Epiphany (or the Feast of the Three Kings) is celebrated on January 6th.
King cake is the food to celebrate Epiphany or the visit of those three kings.
There Are Many International Versions of the King Cake
Across the globe, there are variations on the king cake, including:
- New Orleans, United States: This is the King Cake 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 kings' cake in Germany and Switzerland.
- England: In old England, Twelfth Cake was the popular dish served at the Feast of Epiphany. Twelfth Cake is a fruitcake decorated with frosting.
A Baby Will be Hidden in the Cake
Traditionally, 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 that were baked into the cake.
These feves were so ornate and beautiful that a museum in France actually has a feve collection, where visitors can see hundreds of the porcelain figurines. Today, most bakeries utilize a plastic baby doll that is baked into the cake, though some bakeries use specially designed porcelain figurines.
If You Find the Hidden Baby, Then You Buy The Next Cake!
Tradition says that the person who finds the hidden baby inside the king cake receives a paper crown, is declared king for the day and is 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 located within.