Mardi Gras King’s Cake
It’s big, it’s colorful and it’s topped with a plastic baby! Mardi Gras wouldn’t be the same without this not-too-sweet traditional dessert—or its rich and intriguing history.
Where I live, the closest thing we get to Mardi Gras is a bunch of beads and a few crowded bars come Fat Tuesday. That doesn’t stop me from being completely enamored with this celebration and its custom King’s Cake. What appears to be a modern-day monstrosity of colored icing and an unusual baby figurine is actually a festive tradition that dates back to the 1700s, when the first French settlers arrived in New Orleans.
In parts of Europe, it was customary for tribes to choose a "sacred king" each year. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice with the prize was treated like a king for the year. (Imagine if the President of the United States was selected this way!)
In New Orleans, the tradition evolved into a Creole custom, where the cake is served at celebrations from King’s Day (January 6) through the Mardi Gras season. A classic King’s Cake is an oval of sweet brioche bread topped with a simple icing and a heavy sprinkling of purple (symbolizing justice), green (faith) and gold (power) colored sugars, which are the traditional shades of Mardi Gras. Starting in the 1950s, the hidden bean or coin was often replaced with a pecan half or small plastic baby, symbolizing the Christ child. The person whose slice holds the baby will have good luck for a year. I’m hoping that applies to whomever bakes the cake, too!
For my first foray into King’s Cake, I kept the recipe simple. Popular variations include adding a layer of sweetened cream cheese or pralines and topping it with all manner of candied fruit and nuts. You can find the plastic figures online. But I must warn you: They’re scarier-looking than anything you might see on Bourbon Street. Good luck!
Start with this basic traditional recipe but feel free to add your own twist with fillings or different toppings.