Egad: It’s a perfect storm of food holidays! The Super Bowl is February 7th, Lunar New Year begins February 8th, Mardi Gras follows on February 9th, and Valentine’s Day is February 14th.
We’re tackling them one by one. Here, an easy and most delicious King Cake kit from King Arthur Flour lets you celebrate in style. It has everything you need to make a fine King Cake. You can even host a King Cake party, as many do in Louisiana.
Hundreds of thousands of King Cakes are eaten in Louisiana during the Carnival season: at home, in offices and at King Cake parties.
While people in other parts of the country may order a King Cake from a baking company in Louisiana, making your own with a King Arthur product is likely to be tastier, not to mention less expensive and more fun.
The kit is $19.95 at KingArthurFlour.com.
*The colors were selected in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexis Alexandrovich Romanoff, whose house colors were purple, green and gold. Purple signifies justice, green represents faith and gold is for power.
THE HISTORY OF KING CAKE
The King Cake is an adaptation of the French Epiphany Cake. While an Epiphany Cake is subdued—a round of crisp brown pastry—the celebration cakes in New Orleans are decorated in the three official colors of Mardi Gras: purple, green and gold*.
The cake itself is named for the three Wise Men, also called Magi or Kings. In France the Epiphany Cake is called galette des rois, king cake.
The King Cake tradition is believed to have arrived in New Orleans around 1870. In France, puff pastry (pâte à choux) is filled with almond cream (frangipane). But in New Orleans, the concept took another direction.
The first King Cakes for Mardi Gras were simple rings of yeast dough, some braided, with a small amount of decoration.
The flavor was mostly in the sweet toppings. The cakes became more festive over time, incorporating the Mardi Gras colors.
Beginning in the late 1980s, customers sought something a bit more special: rich, brioche-like dough, filled with cream cheese filling.
In more recent years, the fillings have followed modern tastes. You can find them in chocolate, numerous fruit flavors, pralines. Royal icing with the three official colors of sparkling sugar decorate the tops.
Shapes have evolved, too: round, oval, square, and at fine restaurants, deconstructed. There are also cookies, cupcakes and macarons in purple, green and gold.
The ubiquitous cakes range from garish supermarket options to elegant pastry from the best bakers.
The cake traditionally includes a small plastic baby representing Baby Jesus. The person who gets the piece of cake with the baby is said to have good luck for the next year.
Note, however, that the lucky trinket has various privileges and obligations, which can include hosing next year’s party—or at least, bringing the cake.
After the rich Danish dough is braided and baked, the “baby” is inserted. The top of the ring or oval cake is then covered with delicious sugar toppings in the Mardi Gras colors.
Today, a tiny plastic baby is the common “prize.”
At a party, the King Cake is sliced and served. Everyone looks to see if their piece contains the “baby.” If so, then that person is named “King” for a day and bound by custom to host the next party—and provide the King Cake.
Other trinkets such as coins and charms could be baked into the cake. In humbler homes, a pecan, pea or bean could be baked in.
Since no one should bake plastic inside a cake, these days a plastic baby or other trinket is typically inserted through the underside of the baked cake.
Trinket or not, we look forward to a big slice of our King Arthur King Cake.
Top: A nicely decorated King Cake from Hudson Valley Chocolates. Second: A glamorous King Cake from New Orleans confectioner Sucre. Third: Chef Ric Tramonto’s deconstructed King Cake at Restaurant R’evolution. Bottom: A baby figurine is inserted into the cake. These are from Wilton, but any party store should have them.