Mardi Gras King Cakes: A Delicious Tradition with a Decadent History


Each year, southerners look forward to celebrating carnival and the history, traditions, and sweets that come with it. Early January marks the start of Mardi Gras and, more importantly, the beginning of king cake season. The sugary cinnamon cake is a sweet tradition southerners repeatedly indulge in leading up to Mardi Gras Day.

A Brief History of King Cake

Although king cake has roots in Christianity, it is believed its origins start with Pagan practices. During the Roman winter festival Saturnalia, bakers would place a fava bean inside the cake. Whoever ate the piece of cake with the bean would be declared king for the day of celebration.

In the Middle Ages, the symbolism of the king cake changed. France adopted the king cake to commemorate the Catholic Epiphany or Three Kings Day. King cake evolved to represent the three kings who gifted gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus. Instead of a fava bean, the French hid a porcelain figurine inside the cake.

Epiphany and Mardi Gras became intertwined after the French introduced king cake to New Orleans in the 1870s. Many believe Twelfth Night Revelers, New Orleans’ first krewe, started the king cake tradition. Before Mardi Gras Day, the krewe served king cake to determine who would be the parade kings and queens.

The Modern King Cake Tradition in New Orleans

Today, king cake is a household treat people purchase or make to honor the beginning of Mardi Gras season. A plastic baby replaces the fava bean and porcelain figurines once positioned within the cake layers.

The people who find the baby in the king cake don’t get treated like a king for a day or crowned parade royalty. Instead, they must buy the next king cake or host the next Mardi Gras party. People enjoy the cycle of doughy cinnamon-flavored delight from as early as mid-December until Ash Wednesday.

What Makes Up a Traditional King Cake

King cake is a doughy pastry similar in flavor and texture to a cinnamon roll or coffee cake. Some prefer them with a bready texture, while others like them more flaky. The circular cake is traditionally cinnamon flavored, but fillings like cream cheese, fruit, or praline have become popular.

Bakers cover the cake with sweet royal icing and an abundance of colored sprinkles. The traditional Mardi Gras purple, green, and gold sprinkles represent power, faith, and justice. Hoewver, in December, Gambino’s Bakery makes Christmas-themed king cakes — kringle cakes decorated with red and green sprinkles.

Underneath all the sweetness hides the iconic plastic baby. The standard size of a king cake baby is no smaller than one inch. This size ensures the baby is easy to find and hard to swallow accidentally. Regardless, some bakeries sell king cakes with the baby on the side to prevent unwanted lawsuits.

Can Anyone Bake a King Cake?

There are thousands of king cake recipes online, but baking one from scratch is a task. Mam Papaul’s sells a Mardi Gras king cake kit that shortens the cycle and tastes delicious. Still, no mix beats the renowned king cakes from local New Orleans bakeries.

Where to Shop for King Cakes

Bakeries and sweet shops are endless in a city that loves desserts. New Orleans bakeries begin stocking king cakes at the beginning of January, but many ship the seasonal treats year-round. No matter what time of year, the following New Orleans bakeries are a local favorite:

  • Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery
  • Gambino’s Bakery
  • Haydel’s Bakery
  • Dong Phuong Bakery
  • Manny Randazzo’s

Experience New Orleans Mardi Gras at J Collection’s Maison Dupuy Hotel

The J Collection represents a portfolio of independent and branded hotels in New Orleans. J Collection’s vast destinations ensure a hotel for everyone and any occasion. One of the best hotels to stay at during Mardi Gras is Maison Dupuy Hotel, located at 1001 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. Book a stay with Maison Dupuy and create one-of-a-kind New Orleans memories.