Mardi Gras is upon us and that means that king cakes are being baked. Louisiana king cakes are a cross between coffee cake and a French pastry, and they’re baked starting from the Epiphany (January 6) until Fat Tuesday, the last day before lent. They’re often decorated with green, yellow and purple sugars, and they’re baked with a plastic baby hidden inside, which is supposed to symbolize baby Jesus. (These days the baby is more often added at the end, because obviously you don’t want a melted blob in your cake.)
Putting a choking hazard inside a cake might sound strange to you, but it’s a tradition that started centuries ago in old world Europe.
The tradition didn’t start with plastic babies, but instead began during ancient pagan festivals, when a bean was hidden inside a cake. Later, in medieval France, the cake became associated with Christianity and the Epiphany when they branded it the galette des rois (which literally translates into “king cake”).
Legend has it that if you receive the piece of cake with the bean in it ― which later became a plastic baby ― you get to be king for the day. These days, it also means that you’re responsible for buying next year’s cake.
The French brought their king cake with them to Louisiana when they came to the Americas. The bean or hidden in the cake became a baby in the 1950s when McKenzie’s ― a famous local bakery ― was approached by a traveling salesman who had too many plastic babies on his hands. The idea stuck, and a new tradition was started.
The festive cake is colored purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power which are the official colors of Mardi Gras. If you’re not planning on heading to a real Mardi Gras celebration this year, consider hosting your own and baking up a king cake ― with or without a plastic baby. Here are a few recipes to inspire you:
This article has been updated to reflect that baking the symbolic baby into the cake is less common in modern practice.
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