What is a King Cake, and Who Makes it Best?

THIS SWEET TREAT IS A NEW ORLEANS MARDI GRAS TRADITION

Maurice Praline Cream Cheese King
Maurice French Pastries King Cake

Mardi Gras is a celebration unlike any other. If there’s one city that knows how to throw a party, it’s New Orleans, and Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) is its biggest party of the year. Fat Tuesday is the name given to the day before Ash Wednesday; because Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, which involves 40 days of making sacrifices and fasting, the weekend leading up to it – and especially the day before – is a time to let loose. Hence, Mardi Gras.

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In New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrations typically commence two weeks before Fat Tuesday, which is also a Christian holiday called Shrove Tuesday. Parades are held just about every day during this Carnival period, with festive costumes and a general air of revelry. No celebration is complete without food (especially in New Orleans!), and the most famous of all traditional Mardi Gras foods is the King Cake. 

What is a Mardi Gras King Cake?

The King Cake is a ring of sweet brioche bread, usually hand braided, that’s traditionally filled with cinnamon sugar and topped with sweet frosting and stripes of sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple (symbolizing justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power). A plastic figurine of a small baby (called the fève), representing the Baby Jesus, is usually hidden somewhere in the cake; good luck goes to whomever finds it. 

The King Cake has many variations across Christendom. It’s traditionally associated with Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, a Christian holiday that celebrates the Magi’s visit to the Baby Jesus as well as his baptism and occurs in early January. In France, the galette des rois is made of puff pastry and filled with an almond custard called frangipane (New York’s Celi-Cela Patisserie makes a stellar version). In Spanish-speaking countries, it’s called the Roscón de Reyes, and is usually decorated with candied or dried fruits; you can order one to your door from New York’s popular La Newyorkina. 

The New Orleans King Cake may have been introduced to the region by Basque or French settlers, and nowadays no Mardi Gras celebration is complete without one on the table, alongside other traditional New Orleans foods including gumbo, jambalaya, muffulettas, shrimp & grits, po’boy sandwiches, and for dessert, pralines and the signature layer cake called a Doberge. And, of course, it’s all washed down with the city’s signature cocktail: the Hurricane!

Best King Cakes to Order Online – Shipped Nationwide

If you’re looking to bring this taste of New Orleans to your Mardi Gras celebration (and there’s no reason not to celebrate Mardi Gras, wherever you are!), some of the city’s finest King Cakes are shipping straight from the Big Easy to your door.

Dong Phuong Almond Creme King Cake
Dong Phuong Bakery King Cake

Dong Phuong Bakery

In New Orleans, if you know King Cakes, you know to get yours from Dong Phuong Bakery. This 40 year-old, family-run traditional Vietnamese bakery is renowned for its bánh mì sandwiches, but around this time of year folks line up for their King Cakes, which are made with a light and flaky brioche dough and topped with creamy cream cheese frosting. They’re available filled with cinnamon, cinnamon cream cheese, almond creme, strawberry, pecan, and coconut.

Maurice Traditional King Cakes
Maurice French Pastries King Cake

Maurice French Pastries

Located just outside of New Orleans in Metairie, Maurice French Pastries won the award for best King Cake at the 2016 New Orleans King Cake Festival. Owned by classically trained French pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin, Maurice’s King Cake is cinnamon-infused, hand-braided brioche bread; creamy icing and colored sugars arrive on the side for DIY decorating, along with colorful bead necklaces, doubloons, and, of course, the plastic King Cake baby. They’re available in both traditional and small sizes in a four-pack, and you can also choose to have yours filled with everything from praline cream cheese to apple cinnamon to Bavarian cream.

Gambinos King Cake
Gambino’s Bakery King Cake

Gambino’s Bakery

Gambino’s Bakery has been a New Orleans landmark since 1949, and their King Cake recipes date back to the 1920s. Their traditional King Cakes are made with fresh butter and sweet cinnamon, topped with a generous layer of poured fondant, and baked with the customary gold baby figure inside. Other flavors include ones filled with cream cheese, praline cream cheese, strawberry cream cheese, and praline. You can also order The Rex, which also includes beads, doubloons, an official Mardi Gras poster, and a brochure on the history of Mardi Gras King Cakes.