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Arts & Culture

New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake Culture

King Cakes are a major part of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the delicious pastries have their own customs that come with it during Carnival season.

For the past month, there has been a king cake in my office every day. King cakes are so ubiquitous this time of year, that the weeks between 12th Night and Mardi Gras Day are also known as king cake season, in addition to Carnival season. Although king cakes have been consumed in Louisiana since the time of the French and Spanish colonists, New Orleanians keep recreating the pastry and finding new ways to celebrate it as part of Mardi Gras culture.

Flavors and Variations

La Louisiane makes single-serving king cakes. (Photo by Shira Pinsker)

Your standard king cake is a circular cinnamon roll, covered in a sugary icing and decorated with purple, yellow and green sprinkles. There are many places in town that bake this traditional version and are famous for it — Haydels, McKenzies and Randazzos are just a few. I’m no foodie, so I’ll refer you to the experts for references on where to find the best bite.

The traditional king cake is a jumping off point for variations on that play with size, shape and flavor. La Louisiane makes a single-serving king cake. If circular is too square for you, Hi-Do Bakery molds their cakes into designs, such as a fleurs-de-lis. Most bakeries offer cream-cheese or fruit-filled cakes, but in recent years, chefs have really upped the ante. The king of rock n’ roll has a king cake all his own, Cochon Butcher’s peanut butter, bacon and marshmallow concoction. Cake Cafe & Bakery’s twist on the recipe is a goat-cheese and apple-filled cake. Debbie Does Doberge creates double trouble with King Cake flavored Doberge cakes, infusing two New Orleans traditions into one sweet treat.

New Orleans culture embraces both coffee and spirits, so we’ve found ways to liquify our king cake habit. PJ’s Coffee offers a king cake coffee blend available during Carnival season. You can also jazz up your drink with Lucky Player King Cake Vodka or concoct a King Cake Cocktail recipe.

mardi gras new orleans
I caught a king cake throw at Mardi Gras and looped it through my bike’s handlebars. (Photo by Shira Pinsker)

King Cakes in the Mail

mardi gras king cakes
(From l-r): An office king cake delivery; 3 king cakes brought to my office on separate days. (Photo by Shira Pinsker)

Away from New Orleans and need your king cake fix? Ask a loyal friends to put one in the mail for you. It’s customary to mail king cakes to your loved ones all over the country. In fact, Uptown shipping shop Parcels and Post offers special king cake boxes to make your package extra special.

The Baby

Every king cake comes with a plastic baby inside the cake. The tradition goes, if you get the slice with the baby, you buy the next cake. When purchasing a king cake, you might notice that the baby is actually outside of the cake. That’s so you don’t choke on it, so go ahead and insert the baby yourself.

Since 1989, Haydels has commissioned miniature porcelain favors for its cakes. Each year the figures riff on an aspect of Mardi Gras or larger New Orleans culture. This years’ trinkets are a streetcar and a parade ladder. The figurines are so popular that they have become collectors items and you can even buy them without purchasing a cake.

The baby is so closely associated with Mardi Gras, that local t-shirt purveyors Storyville and Fleurty Girl each sell king cake t-shirts as part of their Mardi Gras offerings. Mignon Faget, the famous local jeweler, has a king cake doll pendant.

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