History of the King Cake

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Press Release

The history of the King Cake began in 12th century France where the cake would be baked on the eve of January 6 to celebrate the visit to the Christ Child by the three Kings. A small token was hidden in the cake as a surprise for the finder.

But the origins go back a little further than that and as you would guess, it has something to do with the Catholic church.

The King’s Cake has its roots in pre-Christian religions of Western Europe. It was customary to choose a man to be the “sacred king” of the tribe for a year. That man would be treated like a king for the year, then he would be sacrificed, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful. The method of choosing who would have the honor of being the sacred king was the King’s Cake. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice that had the coin was the chosen one.

When Christianity extended its influence and began overshadowing the religions that came before it, many of the local customs were not outright abolished, but instead were incorporated into Christian tradition and given a new spin. This even happened to the tradition of Mardi Gras, and from what we have researched so far seems to be the case, but that’s another story. Catholic priests were not predisposed to human sacrifice, so the King’s Cake was converted into a celebration of the Magi, the three Kings who came to visit the Christ Child.

French settlers brought the custom to Louisiana in the 18th century where it remained associated with the Epiphany until the 19th century when it became a more elaborate Mardi Gras custom. In New Orleans, the first cake of the season was served on January 6. A small ceramic figurine of a baby was hidden in the cake. Whoever found the baby was allowed to choose a mock court and host the next King Cake party the following week (weekly cake parties were held until Mardi Gras ). In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the Twelfth Night Revelers used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the Twelfth Night Revelers now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake’s lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you’re on the court; gold is for the queen.

The classic king cake is oval-shaped, like the pattern of a racetrack. The dough is basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon, sometimes just plain. The dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape (not unlike a thin po-boy), then shaped into an oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape (HINT: if you want to find the piece with the baby, look for the twist in the oval where the two ends of the dough meet. That’s where the baby is usually inserted.) The baby hidden in the cake speaks to the fact that the three Kings had a difficult time finding the Christ Child and of the fine gifts they brought.

The cake is then baked, and decorated when it comes out. The classic decoration is simple granulated sugar, colored purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival). King cakes have gotten more and more fancy over the years, so now bakeries offer iced versions (where there’s classic white coffee cake glaze on the cake), and even king cakes filled with apple, cherry, cream cheese, or other kinds of coffee-cake fillings.

Prices range from two to three dollars for a small traditional cake to close to twenty for a large filled one. A more-or-less standard slice of king cake is about three inches wide. The ceramic babies have been replaced with plastic ones, but many places now sell both pink and brown babies. Haydel’s Bakery usually has a limited supply of a ceramic baby that they include with the cakes (though not baked inside). Many bakeries will honor requests for custom-made cakes that have more than one baby. I know kindergarten teachers who always orders a cake with a baby for each slice, so none of the kids is left out! That type of cake is also great for practical jokes at the office.

Who makes the best king cakes is one of those questions like who makes the best po-boy, or is Morning Call now unacceptable because they’ve moved out to Metairie. Remember your manners whenever you enter into discussions on religious topics. Everyone has fond memories of a place in the neighborhood, and some folks are loyal to even the Real Superstore. My personal favorites are Randazzo’s (locations in Chalmette, Metairie, Terrytown and Slidell), and McKenzie’s (McKenzie’s is ubiquitous; if you don’t know about McKenzie’s, you’re not from New Orleans). Yes, I do enjoy the much-maligned traditional king cake from McKenzie’s, even though it only has granulated sugar as a topping. Brings back memories from when I was a kid. There are tons of other places in the metro area doing king cakes, so it’s almost impossible to review them all. Look for discussions of what folks are eating on the New Orleans Internet Mailing List.

King Cake is traditionally served with chicory coffee’ as Coffee’ au lat’. It is best eaten warm and if you must break tradition, it can be eaten with ice cream, preferably chocolate.

King cakes are available at bakeries all over South Louisiana, but only after January 6 through Mardi Gras Day. You can order a special King cake from Haydel’s year around, One of the only two bakeries that you can. The other bakery is called McKenzie’s.

Willie Clark or Marian McElwee 


1350 W. Esplanade Ave Suite B Kenner, LA 70065



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