It’s Mardi Gras time!
In the South, we love to celebrate with a dessert that comes from New Orleans: the Mardi Gras King Cake. During Mardi Gras, you can find these cakes everywhere from gas stations to the finest bakeries across the Gulf Coast. Recent tallies estimate that New Orleans merchants bake between 750,000-850,000 king cakes per year, with many bakers making as much of 80% of their annual revenue over Mardi Gras.
This festive cake is essentially brioche formed into a ring and decorated with icing and or sprinkles, in Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and yellow (gold). They are rolled, mostly braided, and now often filled with things like cream cheese, nuts, or candied fruit. These large, sweet cakes are commonly enjoyed in a group for a ritual slicing, in families, at large parties, and even at the office. Somewhere inside is a hidden item, usually a plastic baby Jesus, a bean, or a ring. Tradition holds that whoever finds the item will be honored – or tasked - in some way in the future.
The origins: the hidden fun and the colors.
The King Cake that most Americans associate with Mardi Gras celebrations across the southeast actually finds its predecessors in Epiphany-time cakes from various countries across the pond, such as France’s galette des rois, Spain’s roscon de reyes, and the Greek vasilopita. Its widespread iterations in Europe and elsewhere date back to at least Medieval if not Early Christian times. The Epiphany commemoration, variously honoring the visitation of the Magi and the baptism, explains why there is traditionally a small plastic or porcelain baby Jesus figurine inside the cake. Catholic heritage likewise bestows the symbolism of the Mardi Gras colors: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
The adaptations: serving, decorating, and hiding practices.
A few changes have occurred over the centuries, giving you license to make what you want of this cake ritual. Traditionally, people ate king cakes between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, but the custom later became the Friday after Mardi Gras. Now it’s welcome any and every day of Mardi Gras week!
Most frequently, king cakes are drizzled or glazed with purple, green and yellow icing. It is possible to use gold, but gold food coloring is a little trickier, as your best bet for buying it is in a spray or powdered form. You can also top the icing with sprinkles for a glitzier version.
The hidden treasure doesn’t have to be a plastic baby Jesus; if you don’t want to have something totally inedible, hide a pecan, or if you don’t want something explicitly religious, a dried bean or gold coin. In New Orleans, the “krewes” (societies who head up the parades and parties) have been using the finding of the baby to determine the presiding king and queen during Mardi Gras (a man can choose his queen or vice-versa). On a more typical household or workplace scale, the finder might be assigned a small task such as doing the dishes, making the cake the following year, or perhaps something more playful.
And now, your king cake.
Unlike many Paula desserts, this recipe has no pecans, so why not use one as the hidden item, determining the fate of the lucky recipient. Press it in to the bottom of your dough ring, or just place it on the side of your display along with other decorations such as beaded necklaces. (If you’re really in a time pinch, we hear you can skip making the dough by using crescent roll or pizza dough, but we don’t recommend it.) Most importantly, have fun!