King Cake History

A king cake (kingcake, kings' cake, king's cake, or three kings cake) is a type of cake associated the pre-Lenten celebrations of Mardi Gras / Carnival.  In Louisiana, and other Mardi Gras celebrating areas the king cake is closely associated with Mardi Gras traditions and is served throughout the Carnival season, which lasts from Epiphany Eve to Fat Tuesday. The tradition was brought to Louisiana from France and Spain. King cake parties in Louisiana are documented back to the eighteenth century, while European traditions date to the mid-1600s.

 The king cake of the New Orleans tradition comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of, fairly dry, twisted bread similar to that used in brioche topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Mardi Gras colors) with food coloring. There are many variants, some in more recent years featuring a filling - the most common being cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.  However, in other parts of Louisiana, particularly in and around Lafayette, king cakes tend to be richer, more moist, and generously filled with everything from cream cheese to a variety of fruit or creme fillings (oftentimes combined with cream cheese).

The cake has a small trinket (often a small plastic baby, said to represent Baby Jesus) inside (or sometimes placed underneath), and the person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket has various privileges and obligations. In past generations the trinket might have been a coin or even a tiny golden bean. It has become customary in the Southern culture that whoever finds the trinket must provide the next king cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.
The "king cake" takes its name from the biblical three kings. In Catholic liturgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany - commemorated on January 6th - celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5th) is popularly known as Twelfth Night (the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve until this night). The season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelfth Night and Epiphany Day), up until Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday;" the day before the start of Lent. Some organizations or groups of friends may have "king cake parties" every week through the Carnival season.

Related culinary traditions are the tortell of Catalonia, the gâteau des Rois in Provence or the galette des Rois in the northern half of France, and the Greek and Cypriot vasilopita. The galette des Rois is made with puff pastry and frangipane (while the gâteau des Rois is made with brioche and candied fruits). A little bean was traditionally hidden in it, a custom taken from the Saturnalia in the Roman Empire: the one who stumbled upon the bean was called "king of the feast." In the galette des Rois, since 1870 the beans have been replaced first by porcelain and now by plastic figurines. The gâteau des Rois is known as Rosca de Reyes in Mexico.