The evolution of the King Cake

The popularity of king cake seems to have exploded during the last decade.

Bakeries and restaurants aren't just filling king cakes with everything imaginable. They've begun offering king cake flavored products – king cake hamburger, anybody? – to people who seem eager to eat up king cake in any form possible.

"It just never ceases to amaze me just how many new king cake products there are this year," says Poppy Tooker, producer and host of "Louisiana Eats" on National Public Radio. "It's a blessed thing if it means that we are growing our king cake culture so much that we just can't enjoy it enough."

But king cake didn't always come in vodka, latte, cupcake and hamburger form.

The Mardi Gras tradition dates back to the Roman Empire's day of opposites, with king cake appearing sometime during The Renaissance, according to Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

King cake began as a puff pastry filled with almond cream in France. The simple cakes included a hard bean inside, which would determine who got to be the king for the day.

"Then, once Christianity came about, there was the Three Kings Day, and it was supposed to be the day that the wise men visited Jesus," Williams said. "And it got all confused. All those old traditions merged together and got repurposed."

As flour, sugar and wheat became more readily available, the cake evolved in southern France and northern Spain into a ring of brioche dough. Many people from that area settled in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, bringing the tradition with them.

The king cakes were a one-day treat for settlers in the early 18th century. When the formal Mardi Gras celebrations began in New Orleans in the 19th century,

Although there wasn't a formal Mardi Gras celebration until the 19th century in New Orleans, the king cakes were still a one-day treat for settlers in the early 18th century, Williams said.

The purple, green and gold decorations did not come about until the 19th century with the formal Mardi Gras celebrations.

The famed king cake baby – now said to represent baby Jesus – didn't appear until the 20th century.

In the 1940s, a New Orleans bakery owner purchased porcelain dolls to hide in his king cakes to distinguish McKenzie's Bakery cakes from the rest. Eventually, the bakery owner ran out of the porcelain baby dolls and started using cheaper, plastic ones.

Today, most king cakes include a plastic baby instead of a hard bean.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more bakeries began using a Danish-style dough and filling the king cakes became more popular.

"People became experimental, using cream cheese and apple to fill king cakes," Williams said. "And now we see people doing all kinds of things."

Williams' favorite modern king cake is a Granny Smith Apple and goat cheese filled cake from Cake Cafe in New Orleans.

Tooker says she can't choose a favorite, but she loves over-the-top king cakes in New Orleans at Cochon Butcher and Domenica.

Cochon's famed Elvis king cake includes bacon, marshmallow fluff, peanut butter and bananas with a plastic baby pig inside. Domenica is known for an elaborate king cake filled with caramel, bananas, pecans and mascarpone (cheese) topped with praline glaze and gold flakes.

"Those are just off the chart, special occasion king cakes," Tooker said. "They're gorgeous."

In Lafayette, Poupart's Bakery serves the traditional French puff pastry king cakes in addition to the more modern brioche rings.

Poupart's owner Patrick Poupart talks about his family's traditional his French king cakes and modern brioche king cakes. Video by Megan Wyatt and Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser.

It's something that the bakery has probably done since opening in 1967, says owner Patrick Poupart. Now, they ship their king cakes across the country.

"We sell about 40 or 50 percent of the French compared to the regular," Poupart said. "They're getting more and more popular every year. It's just something different than the regular king cakes that everybody has."

Several area restaurants and bakeries have embraced the king cake culture by offering their own takes on the traditional king cake.

Indulge Dessert Lounge offers several king cake flavored and themed items, from cupcakes and cake shakes to cheesecake and mousse cups.

"They usually get a good response since Mardi Gras is so big around here," said Kat King, Indulge's merchandise and event coordinator. "Everybody seems to be doing something. Everybody seems to have their own take on king cakes now."

In New Orleans, the Food Drunk Food Truck offers a hamburger with a bun made of king cake. Tooker and Williams both used that as an example of a modern king cake product that might take things a bit too far.

But the burger is still a fun twist on tradition.

"If it means that we're celebrating and growing our king cake culture, it's great," Tooker says. "The disgusting thing is the year round king cake products that are beginning to feel like tourists wearing Mardi Gras beads on Bourbon Street in July. If I ever see another king cake decorated in black and gold for the Saints, I'm going to jump off a bridge."

It's all about that Carnival season of overindulgence before the Lenten time of sacrifice, whether that's a doughnut-style king cake from Meche's, a king cake cupcake from Sophi P.'s or a king cake mousse cup from Indulge.

Still, the popularity of king cake and spinoff products take away a little big of magic the king cake once held.

"King cakes have become so very popular that some of the actual traditions of the king cake are lost," Williams said. "The baby doesn't make that much difference anymore now that you have a king cake in the office every day."


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