If you’ve never heard of king cake, don’t feel too bad. Most folks, especially those who grew up outside the Cajun belt, have never seen or tried this seasonal delicacy. For folks in and around New Orleans, however, king cake is an integral part of Mardi Gras season. Every year, untold thousands of these baked goods are fired up and shipped to the far corners of Louisiana. But how did this tradition get started?
Early History and Religious Significance
King cake is a seasonal delicacy that’s typically produced and shared between the Epiphany (Jan. 6, or the last of the 12 days of Christmas) until the day of Mardi Gras. The “king cake season,” or Carnival season, it effectively a bridge between the Christmas and Easter seasons, with Jan. 6 representing the official end of Christmas and Mardi Gras the day before the start of Lent.
King cake owes its name to the Biblical “three kings,” the “wise men” who brought gifts for baby Jesus. True to this tradition, king cakes contain either a figurine or abstract representation (often a fava bean) of the baby Jesus. Many “king cake parties,” both in Louisiana and elsewhere in the Catholic world, reward (or penalize) the person who finds and consumes the representation.
King Cake in New Orleans Culture
Although the origins of king cake are a bit misty, the practice definitely began in Catholic Europe. Today, king cake is made and consumed in France, Portugal and other historically Catholic countries, as well as non-Catholic countries like Greece and Bulgaria. The custom made its way to Louisiana early in the state’s history, with the first officially recorded “king cake party” taking place in New Orleans in 1870. Today, it’s a nearly ubiquitous item in local bakeries during Carnival season. And king cake has even made its way into the sports world: The New Orleans Pelicans’ secondary mascot, trotted out during Carnival season, is a king cake baby.
Variations and Recipes
Though king cake comes in many forms, it’s generally a round, brightly colored cake with frosting swirls, embedded fruits and candies and simple depictions of religious scenes. It uses three primary colors — purple, green and gold — and possibly some secondary colors. A typical recipe includes confectioner’s sugar, butter, milk, yeast, water, brown and white sugar, salt, egg, nutmeg and cinnamon. Recently, high-end bakeries have taken to offering a more diverse array of cake options, including some with boudin sausage embedded in the flour.
However, some enterprising bakers replace the butter with an equal amount of cottonseed oil or other healthy cooking oil. This reduces the cake’s cholesterol content without compromising flavor.
Think you have what it takes to make a mean king cake that stands up against the best New Orleans has to offer? Even if your first cake isn’t bakery-quality, everyone has to start somewhere. So why not roll up your sleeves, bust out the creativity and try your hand at this classic cottonseed oil cake? You might just discover a talent you never knew you had.
Mardi Gras – French for “Fat Tuesday” – is upon us, and so is our Times Square photo of delicious beignets! Remember, the beignet is the official doughnut of Louisiana and a Mardi Gras staple…they don’t call it “Fat Tuesday” for nothing. Check out our beignet tips and tricks. For even more inspiration, watch our “Best Beignet” video how-tos, and be sure to visit Cotton Seed Oil.com to learn more about the oil used to make great beignets.
Blogger JPLovesCotton brings Mardi Gras flavors back home by eating foods connected to Louisiana – and there’s nothing better to consume than beignets fried in cottonseed oil – just like New Orleans legend Cafe du Monde! You can read more about cottonseed in her other post, Cotton 101: What’s Cottonseed Used For?