Sweet New Orleans Traditions
Happy Mardi Gras! Growing up in New Orleans was a unique and culturally rich experience. I was constantly surrounded by music, art, diversity and, of course, some of the best tasting spicy Creole and Cajun food in the world. I vividly remember looking forward to Mardi Gras season and its sweet tradition, the King Cake. Back then king cake was nothing more than a braided, cinnamon flavored pastry, somewhat of a hybrid between coffee cake and a French pastry, adorned with sweet purple, green and gold sugar. If I was really lucky, my parents would get the kind with the rich, white icing dripping off the sides. Many years ago, king cake didn’t cost much, and there were only two or three major bakeries that made it well. But times have changed! This is one sweet tradition that has become beloved and shared by people all over the world, and you can now find king cakes stuffed with anything from cream cheese, fruit fillings and chocolate to Bavarian cream and deliciously sinful praline pecan. And we can order them anytime and anywhere, because why shouldn’t we get to have our King Cake and eat it too?
The Mardi Gras King Cake
The significance of the King Cake is as rich as the beloved traditions of the city of New Orleans. King Cakes aren’t just an addiction for most Louisiana natives, these sweet cakes are rich with symbolic meaning and history. New Orleans traditions are highly influenced by European culture, so it is no surprise that the King Cake and its many symbols are also derived from European history.
A traditional King Cake is round or oval, like a crown, to symbolize the unity of faiths. The colored sugar adorning the King Cake is purple, which represents Justice, green, representing Faith, and gold, which represents Power. Traditionally, King Cakes became available on Kings Day, which is the date the Magi, or three kings, visited Jesus at the manger bearing gifts. This history can be traced back to the European 12th Night, a grand celebration in honor of the Magi marking the end of the Christmas season, rich with celebration and a delicious confection stuffed with a good luck-bringing symbol. Modern day King Cakes are typically stuffed with a tiny plastic baby, which is believed to represent the baby Jesus. The King Cake is believed to have been originally stuffed with a bean, and to this day, one of the oldest Mardi Gras Krewes still uses golden beans to determine Carnival royalty. Regardless of how you stuff the King Cake, in New Orleans, it is believed that the person who finds the baby is responsible for providing the next King Cake. Elsewhere, the baby inside the cake is thought to bring good luck.
King Cake Season
Traditionally, King Cake “season” started on January 6th, which is the 12th night after Christmas and also known as Kings Day or the Feast of the Epiphany, meaning “to show.” The season ends today, on Mardi Gras Day, which is also known as Fat Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season. There was a time when the major bakeries only made King Cakes during this Mardi Gras season. Although you can order a king cake to your front door any time of year, some of the major bakeries in New Orleans still respect this time honored tradition. Let’s just say that I couldn’t get my hands on my favorite when I was visiting family for Christmas and had to settle for second best.
Homemade Taste Rich in Tradition
Making King Cake from scratch is a labor of love, but like any New Orleans native who loves to cook, I’ve attempted to make it on numerous occasions. Like any labor-intensive and time-consuming yeast bread, you have to knead the dough and let it rise. The dough also needs to be spiced just right; traditionally this is done with brown sugar, cinnamon and lots of butter. Specialty king cakes are also stuffed with creative fillings, like fruit, chocolate or cream cheese. The dough is then wrapped around the filling, braided with other strands of dough and left to rise a second time. Following the baking and cooling period, the King Cake is ready to be decorated in colored sugar and thick vanilla-flavored icing, the crowning jewel.
Savor the Flavor of New Orleans
Hopefully you’ve had access to King Cake in your corner of the world. It never fails that I start craving it around Christmas every year. In Atlanta, we can find local versions in most grocery stores though, to be honest, I’d rather just make it myself. However you can get your hands on it, one thing is certain, King Cake is guaranteed to bring the flavor of Mardi Gras into your heart and home!