A Treat for Kings: The King Cake Story

King of King Cake
The king cake is the food for royals like King Will Farrell!

Bakery Basics

The New Orleans king cake is a cinnamon and sugar spiced dough that is molded into a large circle and decorated with icing and sprinkles in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.  The king cake dough, however, varies greatly in bakeries across the Big Easy; while some lean towards a brioche-like dough, others tend to steer towards a bread dough. Gambino’s king cakes are slightly different in that they use a danish dough, making their king cakes lighter and more pastry-like.

Some bakeries also choose to fill their king cakes.  These fillings are incredibly diverse in options, ranging from Bavarian cream and coconut, to fillings as simple as cream cheese and apple.  The benefit of Gambino’s danish dough is that it lends itself more easily to delicious pastry fillings, those classically paired with danishes like fruit jams and custards.

The King Cake’s Rowdy Pagan Origins

For centuries the king cake has been associated with the Catholic religion and more specifically the Epiphany and Twelfth Night (both referring to the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem), but in actuality the king cake stems from a pagan festival celebrated by the Ancient Roman Empire.  This festival, called Saturnalia, was used to celebrate Saturn, the God of Agriculture.  Very similar to the behavior of Mardi Gras, Saturnalia was a festival of forbidden activities, a time during which the people could drink, gamble, party, and copulate to their hearts’ desire.

You may be wondering how this relates to king cake.  Well, a major part of Saturnalia was the concept of role reversal.  During the festival slaves switched places with their masters, allowing them to make orders and demands that their masters were obligated to obey and giving them the freedom of speech to express their discomfort and concerns to their masters.  This piece of Saturnalia brought about the tradition of a king cake.  Every year during the festival a cake was made with a fava bean baked inside (fava beans at the time were considered magical).  Whoever got the bean in his slice of cake became the ‘King of the Bean,’ the ‘Lord of Misrule,’ able to rule over all those who usually held the power.

The King Cake’s French Predecessor

King Cake trinkets
Just a couple of the many porcelain trinkets collected in the favophilie tradition.

The tradition of the Roman king cake transitioned into a number of representations across the globe—the Portuguese Bola-Rei, the Spanish Rosca des Reyes, the Bulgarian banitsa, the Greciaian vasilopita—but none are so relevant as France’s Galette des Rois (literally translating as cake of kings).  Appearing as early as the 1300’s, the Galette des Rois is  a French tradition, originally used to celebrate the new year.  The traditional French galette is a brioche cake baked into a round with a frangipane center, as with the Romans it originally had a bean baked into it called la fève.

This galette inspired the game tirer les rois (find the king) in which the cake would be sliced so that each person at the table had a piece and one extra would remain for the symbolic ‘poor passerby.’  The youngest member of the group would then sit beneath the table and dictate who would receive each slice, in the hopes of ensuring the game was fair and no one chose a slice because they saw the bean.  Whoever found la fève in their cake was crowned the king or queen of the evening.  Many French galettes, even to this day, are sold with paper crowns to be worn during the winner’s reign.

It wasn’t until late into the Middle Ages that the Galette des Rois was connected to the Epiphany and used to celebrate Twelfth Night (served only on the 6th of January).  The connection of the galette to the Epiphany came through the game’s name tierer les rois, meant to reference finding the Three Kings of Bethlehem.  The bean was eventually replaced with porcelain trinkets, many coming in the form of a crowned baby intended to represent Jesus.  But not all of the trinkets were babies.  It is a great tradition in France to collect the lucky porcelain charms baked into the galettes, a practice called favophilie.

There is great variety in French Galette des Rois; the type and form of the cake changes depending on where in France it is made.  The traditional cake I have described is called La Galette de Pithviers and comes from the northern part of France.  Eastern France bakes La Galette Comtoise, and southern France is responsible for the La Gateau des RoisLa Gateau des Rois is the closest of the three galettes to our New Orleanian conception of a king cake; it is a brioche cake baked into a circle, to represent a crown, and filled with candied fruit.

But What About New Orleans?

Ah, the ever asked question: what does New Orleans have to do with it?  Well, like much else in our city the king cake tradition was brought to us by the French.  It is thought that Pierre Le Moyne, a French-Canadian explorer and Sieur d’Iberville, brought the traditions of Carnival (including Galette des Rois) to Louisiana in 1699.  It wasn’t, however, until the 1950’s that king cake actually became popular in New Orleans.  As we well know, king cakes now fly off the shelves come Mardi Gras season, but a couple things have changed.

Where once were beans and porcelain figures, now is a plastic baby, inserted into the cake before serving.  And finding the baby is no longer considered lucky, nor does it crown you king, instead it means you must either buy the next king cake or throw the next Mardi Gras party (a fun but slightly less exciting prospect).  Nonetheless, the king cake has become a staple in carnival celebrations in New Orleans and a beloved treat.