NEW ORLEANS — When Dominique Lee was in elementary school in the 1990s, every year for Twelfth Night the teacher would bring a king cake to share with the class. He and his classmates were waiting for their slices – decorated with purple, gold and green sugars – eager to see which piece had a little plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever found it was responsible for bringing another king cake to school the following week, and the cycle would continue through carnival season, until Shrove Tuesday.
“It was a really wonderful childhood memory, and it stuck with me to this day,” said Mr. Lee, a New Orleans-born and raised chef.
Almost everyone in New Orleans has a similar story. Kingscake is a treasured candy and a beloved carnival tradition.
And in New Orleans, where Catholicism remains the dominant religion, twelfth night, celebrated here on January 6, has a deep meaning. The date – also known worldwide as Epiphany or Three Kings Day – marks the time when the three Magi, or kings, reached the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Celebrations vary, but in New Orleans, Twelfth Night also marks the start of the pre-Lenten carnival season, a cycle of baking and eating royal cakes, with the arrival of many plastic babies.
Poppy Tooker, an author from New Orleans, said that the king cake dates back to ancient Rome and the Saturnalia Festivala celebration of the god Saturn.
“Tradition is that they bake the bean into the cake, which really gives the impression of a king cake,” Ms Tooker said. “When Rome collapsed, like so many others in the Catholic Church in Europe, they took those pagan customs and adapted them.”
King cakes are revered in New Orleans, so much so that it is considered sacrilege to eat one before January 6. Until the 18th century, king cake was largely only eaten on this day, to signal the end of the Christmas season. In the early 1900s however, some carnival groups (as parade organizers are known) like twelfth night revelers began hosting balls, where they served the king cake, selecting the “king” or “queen” depending on which guest found the gem, or bean, hidden in the cake.
The New Orleans version of the cake, which Ms. Tooker said was most likely developed by 18th-century French and Spanish settlers, initially followed a basic structure: the oval-shaped pastries consisted of brioche dough with notes vanilla, and were covered with colored sugar crystals and stuffed with beans, initially a bean. In the 19th century, porcelain dolls were the bean of choice; in the 20th century, McKenzie Pastries, a local chain that closed in 2001, became one of the first commercial bakeries to use a plastic baby, and others soon followed. Cakes also became sweeter and more Danish as royal cakes became commercially popular.
“It’s the iconic dessert of the time,” said food historian Lolis Eric Elie.
Today, baking has come to life in New Orleans. Gambino’s serves Bavarian Royal Cream Cake and Royal Praline Cream Cheese Cake, among other varieties. Bywater Bakery experimented with savory flavors by offering cakes stuffed with blood sausage, lobster or spinach-artichoke dip. Haydel’s BakeryThe classic version of is a popular favorite. And several bakeries, like The bakery and Golden croissantto serve king cakes.
“Royal cake season is this truly communal experience that I think defines New Orleans Mardi Gras in general,” said Matt Haines, author of “Cake The Big Book of Kingsan archive of some of the tastiest cakes in town.
Dong Phuong Bakery, in New Orleans East, embraced this idea. The Vietnamese bakery started making the pastry in 2008, selling around 100 cakes for the whole season. Now it averages around 50,000.
“We wanted to create an offer for the community,” said Linh Garza, president of the bakery. “But we wanted to adapt it to our community and our tastes.”
Ms. Garza’s family opened the bakery in 1982 after immigrating as refugees to New Orleans. Dong Phuong has become a culinary respite for the area’s Vietnamese community. And Ms. Garza’s mother, Huong Tran, eventually became the mastermind behind the bakery’s royal cake. The recipe opts for cream cheese frosting and uses a flaky brioche dough, offering more moistness than other versions and a remarkably chewy bite. Ms. Tran, who previously worked as a seamstress, added deep slits to her cakes.
José Castillo was 5 years old when his family arrived in New Orleans from Villanueva, Honduras in 1981. After seeing the Three Kings tradition at school, he came home and begged his mother , Norma Castillo, to buy him a king cake.
“She was like, ‘Really? We just got to this country!’”
AT Norma’s Sweets Bakery in the Mid-City — Mr. Castillo runs this second location of his mother’s bakery — the king cake has become a staple. Filled with guava and cream cheese and topped with a light layer of frosting, Norma’s cake plays with the power of subtle sweetness, delivering a crunchy, fruity bite to all who indulge.
“We wanted to give the community a little taste of the Latin product,” Mr. Castillo said of their use of the guava filling. “Guava is our strawberry in Honduras, and we wanted to do something that allowed us to be part of the community, but also reflected where we came from.”
In the French Quarter, by Brennan has found a pleasing intersection between simplicity and innovation. The legendary restaurant began selling king cakes nationwide in 2021, including a traditional version with hints of cinnamon and butter in every bite.
“It’s really a fun time for the city,” said Ralph Brennan, an owner. “We all have these incredible memories of eating our favorite royal cake and walking in the parade, and we want to be part of those memories for the next generation.”
In 2019, Will and Jennifer Samuels founded king cake center to centralize the range of royal cake options for the locals. The couple partnered with local bakeries and restaurants during carnival season, eventually selling nearly 1,000 royal cakes a day from pick-up points in New Orleans. Although Mr Samuels died in September, Ms Samuels said she would keep the hub going, which many locals see as a godsend.
“I had so much fun with it, so I really didn’t think to drop it,” Ms Samuels said. “The feedback I received from bakeries was about their appreciation for being part of the hub, especially over the past year. For some of them, things seemed pretty shaky and we kind of helped put them on solid footing with these guaranteed sales every day.
“It’s honestly the spirit of the city,” she added. “New Orleans is just a place where people find a way to be happy.”