- History of the "King Cake"
The story of the King Cake began in 12th century France where the cake would be baked on the eve of January 6 to celebrate the visit to the Christ Child by the three
Kings. A small token was hidden in the cake as a surprise for the finder.
But the origins go back a little further than that and as you would guess, it has something to do with the catholic church.... The King's Cake has its roots in
pre-Christian religions of Western Europe. It was customary to choose a man to be
the "sacred king" of the tribe for a year. That man would be treated like a king for the year, then he would be sacrificed, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful. The method of choosing who would have the honor of being the sacred king was the King's Cake. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice that had the coin was the chosen one.
When Christianity extended its influence and began overshadowing the religions that
came before it, many of the local customs were not outright abolished, but instead
were incorporated into Christian tradition and given a new spin. This even happened
to the tradition of Mardi Gras, and from what we have researched so far seems to be
the case, but that's another story. Catholic priests were not predisposed to human sacrifice, so the King's Cake was converted into a celebration of the Magi, the three
Kings who came to visit the Christ Child.
French settlers brought the custom to Louisiana in the 18th century where it remained
associated with the Epiphany until the 19th century when it became a more elaborate
Mardi Gras custom. In New Orleans, the first cake of the season was served on January 6. A small ceramic figurine of a baby was hidden in the cake. Whoever found the baby was allowed to choose a mock court and host the next King Cake party the following week (weekly cake parties were held until Mardi Gras ).
In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the Twelfth Night Revelers used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the Twelfth Night Revelers now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake's lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you're on the court; gold is for the queen.
The classic king cake is oval-shaped, like the pattern of a racetrack. The dough is
basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon, sometimes just plain. The
dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape (not unlike a thin po-boy), then shaped
into an oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape (HINT: if you want to find the piece with the baby, look for the twist in the oval where the two ends of the dough meet. That's where the baby is usually inserted.) The baby hidden in the cake speaks to the fact that the three Kings had a difficult time finding the Christ Child and of the fine gifts they brought. The cake is then baked, and decorated when it comes out. The classic decoration is simple granulated sugar, colored purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival). King cakes have gotten more and more fancy over the years, so now bakeries offer iced versions (where there's classic white coffee cake glaze on the cake), and even king cakes filled with apple, bavarian cream, cherry, cream cheese, or other kinds of coffee-cake fillings. A more-or-less standard slice of king cake is about three inches wide. The ceramic babies have been replaced with plastic ones, but many places now sell both pink and brown babies.