Down in N’Awlins and across the world, most people think of Mardi Gras as a time for indulging and imbibing, donning festive garb and dancing in the streets. But amidst all this revelry are a few traditions of the culinary persuasion—most notably, the infamous King Cake.
No Mardi Gras party would be complete without a King Cake—a sweet, garishly colored dessert named for the Biblical three kings, and brought to New Orleans by French and Spanish colonists. A buttery dough similar to a brioche or cinnamon roll is folded into a large ring, said to represent the circular path of the Kings in finding the newborn Christ. Some king cakes are stuffed with fruit or cream filling—today, with fillings from cream cheese to pineapple to pecan praline—while others are left plain. But all are then doused in purple, green, and gold icing or sugar: the Mardi Gras colors, symbolizing justice, faith, and power.
Finally, a tiny baby doll is hidden inside. This figurine is said to represent the Christ Child, in keeping with the religious symbolism. However, older European versions included a bean or a coin as the trinket, and not a figurine at all; the dolls became standard as recently as the 1950s. But today, whoever gets the slice with the plastic baby is said to be lucky all year—and has to provide the king cake for the next party.
King cakes arrive in New Orleans on Epiphany, and last through Mardi Gras; notable New Orleans bakeries such as Randazzo's
ship their king cakes, while many Nola residents bake their own. But make sure you get your fill before Lent begins—as of Ash Wednesday, the time for sugary indulgence is over.