A Sweet History of NOLA’s King Cakes

Louisiana News

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA–Bakeries across New Orleans are selling king cakes by the droves as we kick off the beginning of the Carnival season. But do you know the history behind one of the most iconic celebratory birthday cakes in culinary history?

December 25th is widely celebrated as the day of the Christian God’s incarnation. But it’s the the twelfth day of Christmas on January 6th, when three kings would bestow gifts to the new born king on what would be known as Ephiphany. But to quote the last Queen of France before the revolution, “Let them eat cake.” This is the story about the King’s Cake.

“There were always two king cakes in France, there was the one from Northern France which is made with puff pastry and almond frangipane. That is what we in New Orleans call a french king cake. In Southern France, they make a ring brioche and that is also a king cake.”

Both Kind Cakes coexisted in France, quite harmoniously, but as people from the southern region of France made the journey to colonize New Orleans, in the 18th Century, they brought with them a sweet tradition. But the reason for making a cake with a baby started back in Europe with the Catholic Church. But anywhere there is Catholicism, you can find a pastry linked to Christ. But No matter its nationality, each pastry harbors a secret.

“It started out being a fava bean that was dried and cooked into the cake and if you got that cake on that day, you were king or queen for the party.”

Even older, at the time of European Paganism, there were celebrations where one lucky member from the townsfolk would become a King of Fools, or King for a Day. French bakers would soon hide small porcelain dolls in the cakes. In 1930’s New Orleans, McKenzie’s Bakery would use small bisque German figurines called “Frozen Charlottes”, to locate the hot spots in the oven.

“As we switched from coal to electric kilns, you could congtrol the temperature better and these little charlottes were no longer necessary. There were tons of them and McKenzie’s had a truckload full of them and so instead of a bean, he used these charlottes.”

Across New Orleans, 750 thousand King Cakes are baked every year in various bakeries.

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