There are few things more ubiquitous in New Orleans during the Carnival season than king cakes, the traditional pastry of Mardi Gras. It’s served at dinner parties, schools, offices, restaurants, straight from the box on the neutral ground, and in the enviable home of that random person you met through a friend-of-a-friend along the parade route who generously let you use their facilities and sent you off with a plate of jambalaya.
The king cake in New Orleans and anywhere in south Louisiana where Mardi Gras is observed is a modern adaptation of the traditional French galette des rois, which itself goes back to Roman times celebrating the Saturnalia in early January. Since the Middle Ages in France, it’s been the traditional way to celebrate Epiphany — the 12th day of Christmas — on Jan. 6. The French pastry is traditionally a flaky puff pastry dough, usually filled with something sweet like frangipani or almond paste, and is solid and round. Traditional galette des rois can be found on Epiphany and throughout the Mardi Gras season at Croissant D’Or in the French Quarter and La Boulangerie on Magazine Street where it’s sold in two sizes. La Boulangerie also has large strawberry, cinnamon, and cream cheese filled kings cakes for sale.
The 20th century version served in Louisiana is traditionally wreath shaped with a hollow center; sometimes braided and usually made with brioche dough; covered in frosting and purple, green and gold sugar; and either plain or filled with cream cheese or a fruit pie filling. It most closely resembles a cross between a coffee cake, cinnamon roll, and a danish.
Growing up in New Orleans, king cakes were serious business: who had the best one? Who had the biggest? And at home and at school we’d debate the merits of this bakery versus that one — the consistency of brioche, if the icing or filling too sweet, and what’s up with that scary looking baby? Each bakery had its own style, but innovation wasn’t ever part of the equation. However, it wasn’t until recently that king cakes began evolving again.
The 21st century iterations of this amazing pastry — thanks in part to the explosion of new entrepreneurial mom and pop businesses, the rise of foodie culture and its effects and amplification on social media — can be something entirely different.
Old School Innovators
The tightly packed, flaky pastry of Haydel’s Bakery Cajun Kringle is loaded with pecan-praline filling and sweet caramel topping. It’s the Jefferson Parish bakery’s traditional Christmas pastry, but they’ve been selling them year-round for a very long time — it’s the old “go-to” for nontraditional king cakes.
Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East serves up a hybrid brioche dough that’s flakier and butterier (that’s a word!) and moister than most, shaped into a horseshoe, and instead of the usual super-sugary icing on top, they use whipped cream cheese. There’s a reason people drive all the way out to the East to pick one up. This traditional Vietnamese bakery and its restaurant next door have cult-like fans — myself included — who go crazy for their sweets, breads and savory items.
Hi-Do Bakery in Terrytown on the West Bank is a traditional Vietnamese bakery that sets itself apart with traditional dough king cakes dusted with sugar — no icing — formed into shapes like crawfish, crab or fleur de lis.
In Mid-City, Norma’s Sweets Bakery is a great Latin grocery known for its lunch counter of hot foods spanning the cuisines from across Latin America. But the bakery side of the grocery, which makes a great tres leche cake year round, during Carnival season offers a very Cuban take on the traditional filled king cake: guava cheese filled king cake. It’s one of my favorites, and one that is consistently under-the-radar of most king cake lovers.
Gracious Bakery — soon to open a St. Charles Avenue location along the parade route — delights with bright flavors. Their Meyer Lemon king cake is citrusy and just subtly tart, while their Nectar king cake riffs on a favorite snowball flavor.
Maurice French Pastries found room for improvements in their filled king cakes: first, a creamy, chocolate custard-filled cake with Kentucky bourbon, and another with Bavarian praline cream and a splash of Southern Comfort. Keep the spirited versions going with cakes from Breads on Oak, featuring flavors like bourbon tiramisu, almond-orange champagne, and strawberry rum cream cheese.
Marigny breakfast spot Cake Cafe has been wowing locals with their apple and goat cheese filled king cake (similarly, try Shake Sugary’s apple, cheddar, and rosemary version, leaning on more savory flavors). Their other filled king cake, a raspberry cream cheese, also is very delicious. One of the things I love the best about their take on the Carnival pastry is the electric purple, green and gold icing drizzled on top like tiger stripes. They also offer a personal-sized, single-serving boudin and bacon king cake. It’s very decadent, and a good example of the meat-crazed savory variations of this dish.
In the French Quarter, you can taste test Kingfish’s “Mardi Foie” king cake with duck fat brioche and icing made from saffron, beets, and arugula. There’s a seared piece of foie gras on top for a sumptuous, savory take that’s certainly fit for a king.
On Magazine Street, Sucre has one type of king cake, and it glitters! The mostly plain, buttery king cake is set apart by its dazzling exterior. The usual expression after seeing one of chef Tariq Hanna’s confections is: “oooh, pretty!”
This may be the gold standard of king cakes. Willa Jean pastry chef Lisa White’s masterpiece is the Valrhona caramelized milk chocolate espresso king cake certain to perk up your day.
Another Besh Group option is Israeli-tinged Shaya’s king cake, offered the entire month of February. The cinnamon babka cake comes with a sea salt-caramel glaze for a perfect balance of salty and sweet. Note: Petite Amelie also offers babka king cakes, including a Nutella-laced version.
Got a hankering for Thanksgiving flavors? Sweet Savor’s Bakery in Gentilly has your back with their sweet potato pie king cake. Speaking of sweet potato’s, District Donuts’ king cake and king cake donut might look traditional, but the frosting is anything but. This bakery uses only natural coloring and flavoring: the purple comes from ube, a deeply pigmented purple sweet potato. The green frosting gets its coloring from matcha (powdered green tea), and the orange comes from satsuma.
Then there’s “The King” of king cakes: The Elvis, named for the King’s decadent snacking tendencies, at Cochon Butcher in the Warehouse District. Featuring a fresh banana and peanut butter filling, and topped with marshmallow creme and house smoked bacon, it’s over the top and delicious. For 2016, they are selling only large versions of the Elvis king cakes but have added mini versions of the more traditional cinnamon, strawberry, and cream cheese filled king cakes.
Not Quite King Cakes
We’ve run the gamut: experimenting with fillings, shapes, doughs — so what’s left? What new things can we do to the humble king cake?
At District: Donuts, Sliders & Brew on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District, they’ve got a delicious king cake donut, of course.
Debbie Does Doberge makes the New Orleans style fancy layered doberge cake as a special king cake flavor during the season. You can find it at Bakery Bar.