Whether you’re parading at the French Quarter or simply feeling the Mardi Gras spirit here in D.C., there’s one tradition every Carnival reveler should partake in: King Cake.
The ring-shaped pastry’s vibrant looks (and taste) make it stand out, and if you ask New Orleans native, Chef David Guas, it is an icon of Mardi Gras traditions.
“King Cake is to Mardi Gras what pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving. Every table in every home, office, cafeteria, and lounge in New Orleans will be graced by a King Cake at some point between Twelfth Night [January 6], which is the beginning of the Carnival season, until Fat Tuesday,” Guas says.
So, what exactly goes into making the perfect King Cake? Answers vary widely. That’s likely due to the cake’s history being as colorful as its fillings and topping.
The French and Spanish occupations of Louisiana in the 1700s greatly influenced New Orleans cuisine. Their indulgent winter solstice rituals were based on the ancient Roman holiday, Saturnalia. Part of the Roman tradition was enjoying a golden sugar-sprinkled cake, meant to represent the sun. A hidden fava bean meant good luck for the person to find it in their piece. Instead of a bean, the French adaption, Galette de Rois, included a fève, or tiny porcelain charm.
The late 1800s saw the formalization of many of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras traditions and the evolution of King Cake. Around this time, young debutantes would pick out silver beans from a mock cake rolled out onto the presentation floor. The one to pick out the lone gold bean was crowned Queen of the celebration. By the 1960s and 70s, King Cake had gained significant popularity by emphasizing its connection to the Epiphany and the three kings who brought gifts to newborn Jesus.
Chef Guas recalls how demand for the cake boomed the following decade.
“In the 1980s, an explosion occurred with a bakery called McKenzie’s, who started making a vibrant, attractive cake by adding the colors of purple, green, and gold.”
Purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. Those were the three Carnival colors designated by the Krewe of Rex, one of New Orleans’ oldest social organizations.
McKenzie’s cinnamon King Cake was the first to feature a plastic baby representing Christ Child as the special trinket. Over the years, however, it has simply become known as the King Cake Baby. Current tradition dictates that whoever gets the plastic baby must either buy the next king cake or throw the next party.
Over the past few decades, bakeries have not hesitated to put their own spins on the cake. Fillings can include cream cheese, strawberry, praline, chocolate and more. Some even switch up toppings and colors to fit different themes.
Chef Guas has shared the King Cake tradition with the DMV for nearly 18 years, 12 of which have been as founder and owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery. The cake is filled with cinnamon and his signature Creole cream cheese and topped with white icing and traditional color trio of sugar. More than a seasonal confection, Chef Guas takes pride in the opportunity to showcase the unique culture and traditions that ground his animated home city.
“While parts of the country spend January, February and March recovering from decadence of the holidays, New Orleanians are once again eating, celebrating and living life to the max. Why do people love New Orleans so much? Because it is infectious and its laissez faire sensibility conjures a great time.”
And with that, laissez les bon temps rouler!