If you’re in New Orleans during Carnival season, look out for the plastic baby hiding inside your colorful slice of King Cake. This trinket symbolizes an infant Jesus, and he’s your ticket to honorary kinghood.
The name King Cake speaks volumes about this decadent dessert. Slicing into the ring-shaped brioche reveals rich fillings like sweet cream cheese or pecan praline. Louisianans almost always decorate the top in the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple—respectively representing faith, power, and justice—made from dyed sugar and icing. On top, a paper crown sometimes garnishes the cake. Inside, a plastic baby Jesus awaits one lucky consumer.
You might be wondering if the original King Cake baker just made a mistake, but intentionally hiding a prize inside a pastry has ancient origins. It begins with the Roman belief that fava beans were magical. During Saturnalia, a festival that honored the Roman god of agriculture, celebrants cast their votes for a mock king using fava beans. By the Middle Ages, this evolved into baking the bean into a cake on the Christian holiday of Epiphany—a celebration that honors when the three kings brought gifts for baby Jesus. Christians shifted the tradition away from paganism by replacing the bean with a small object that represented Jesus.
Throughout the ages, the rule still stood that whoever found the bean or trinket became “king,” also known as “Lord of Misrule.” But with great power comes great responsibility: The king gets to wear a paper crown, but he’s also tasked with providing the next pastry, paying for everyone’s drinks, or hosting next year’s party.
King Cake is New Orleans’ take on the French pastries known as galette and gâteau des rois, both served on Epiphany on January 6. For Christians in Louisiana, Epiphany doesn’t just continue the celebration of Christ’s birth; it also marks the beginning of Carnival, a last opportunity to party hard before Lent whisks away indulgence in February. Come Mardi Gras morning, partygoers down thick slices of King Cake with beer for breakfast.
But this vibrant treat isn’t just an accessory to holiday cheer. King Cake has its own festival. It’s also inspired a collection of flavored vodkas. From the Middle Ages to the modern Carnival season—where participants still elect a Lord of Misrule—there’s no end in sight to this royal pastry’s reign of pleasure.
Need to Know
King Cakes are available all over New Orleans during Carnival, usually up until Ash Wednesday.
Where to Try It
Haydel's Bakery4037 Jefferson Hwy., New Orleans, Louisiana, 70121, United States
A New Orleans baked goods institution that ships King Cakes internationally.
Manny Randazzo King Cakes3515 N. Hullen Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70002, United States
This bakery is famous for its pecan praline King Cake. Nationwide delivery is available year-round.