King cakes were thought to have originated in France around the 12th century as part of the Feast of the Epiphany, which is held on January 6th, exactly twelve days after Christmas. This feast, also called King’s Day or Twelfth Night, honors the Magi, the Three Kings who traveled a great distance to bring gifts in adoration of the Christ Child. The Feast of the Epiphany is the official beginning of the carnival season in New Orleans, which lasts from January 6th until Mardi Gras Day or Fat Tuesday, the date of which varies from year to year.
French settlers brought the king cake tradition to Louisiana and king cake parties in New Orleans have been documented as far back as the 18th century. These early king cakes had a bean, coin, or other small token baked inside. In later years, a tiny ceramic doll was introduced as the token, chosen to represent the Christ Child. The lucky recipient of the piece of cake with the hidden token was said to have good fortune for the coming year.
The traditional king cake is a sweetened bread, similar to a brioche, adorned with a sprinkling of sugar. Over the years, New Orleans bakers have expanded on the traditional king cake, lavishly decorating them with icing and colored sugars and adding delectable fillings.
Today’s king cake is a highlight of the carnival season, with a small plastic baby as the new traditional token. From January 6th until the beginning of Lent, New Orleanians indulge in the purple, green and gold confection at king cake parties. Custom dictates whoever gets the plastic baby must provide the king cake for the next party, keeping the celebration rolling all season long!