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It’s King Cake Season!

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In my home state of Louisiana it's traditional that January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, is the time when Christmas trees are taken down and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) decorations begin to appear. It also marks the beginning of King Cake Season.

My wife and I moved to the mountains of North Carolina after Katrina. We arrived in February and my training with my new company began quickly. On my last week in the training store, I surprised the staff with a New Orleans king cake from Gambino's Bakery. I've had many king cakes over the years and found that Gambino's is my favorite. Several of the people who had been so helpful in my training had heard of this delicious treat, but had never tasted one. Others didn't have a clue. Sharing a bit of my heritage and talking about one of the few things I miss from Louisiana is always fun for me.

A king cake is not a typical Duncan Hines cake with two layers and icing in the middle. Take a small amount of king cake dough and bake it and you've got a cinnamon bun/roll. Take a lot more of the same dough, put it in a circular shape (like a crown) and you've got a king cake. It's more like a giant cinnamon doughnut! But there's more: next comes a thick layer of white icing with purple, gold, and green (Mardis Gras colors) sugar sprinkled over it. Some variations include fillings such as cream cheese, strawberries, or praline. The final touch is the insertion of a small plastic baby. Now you've not only got a great treat or dessert around which to focus a party, you've got a religious feast! The circular shape represents a crown for the King of Kings. The baby represents the baby Jesus.

The official Mardi Gras colors were chosen in 1872. The 1892 Rex Parade theme, Symbolism of Colors, gave meaning to the colors: purple represents justice; green, faith; and gold, power. Is it any surprise that the Mardi Gras colors influenced the choice of school colors for arch rivals Louisiana State University and Tulane University? When LSU was deciding on its colors, the shops in New Orleans had stocked up on purple, green, and gold material for the Mardi Gras season. LSU decided upon purple and gold, and bought much of it. Tulane bought much of the only remaining color — green — and thus the Green Wave.

Just as the birth of Jesus meant good things to come for believers, the baby in the king cake represents more parties! The person who is served the piece of cake that includes the baby is obligated to bring the cake for the next party. In South Louisiana, it isn't unusual to have one or more "King Cake Parties" every week all the way up to Mardi Gras. It sure is hard to give up king cakes for Lent!

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!

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  • JP

    Grew up in NOLA myself, spent years in Atlanta, and now live in Austin. There are more crawfish boils in Austin than there were in Atlanta, but I haven’t found many king cakes. A nice memory..thanks for the imagery!

  • King Cake parties? Love it. What a great way to get through the Jan/Feb. doldrums.

  • I baked one of these once for the shelter where I worked (it’s a really long story…). I love baking and I made an elaborate rich sour cream sweet dough, which sat rising on top of the refrigerator and perfuming the whole kitchen. The cake was huge with filling and icing and the whole bit…but I made one little mistake.

    I put five (thoroughly washed) real gold dollar coins in the cake. Then, because I didn’t want anybody to break a tooth, I told the shelter ladies that the coins were in there.

    You can imagine what happened to the cake. *wry smile* And it was so delicious! Ah, well…live and learn! It sure was fun to bake, anyway.

  • We look forward to this time of year because there’s nothing better than the smell of freshly baked king cake…well, maybe eating it is even better than smelling it. Happy Mardi Gras!

  • I’m also a Louisiana transplant (Iberville Parish) to the North Carolina mountains! Enjoyed reading your post on king cakes. I love the story about how LSU and Tulane picked their colors. Our eighth-grade world history teacher told it to us (an important world history lesson, that), but I don’t think I’ve thought about it since.

    I made a king cake at home this weekend and brought it to work today. Several people were asking questions about king cakes, so I wanted to send them a link to more information … which is how I found this article.

    Best wishes for a happy, fun, and king-cake-filled Mardi Gras season!