The local New Orleans grocer Breaux Mart has rechristened itself King Cake Mart on Twitter for the duration of the carnival season. That should give out-of-towners an idea of the importance of King Cake in our city.
As many in the world awaited Twelfth Night and the Epiphany or Three Kings Day to mark the ending of Christmas, New Orleanians impatiently ticked off the days until Jan. 6 for another reason: to signify the arrival of the carnival season and the blessed arrival of King Cake.
It’s the time for locals to play, feast, and attend endless parties, masque balls, and parades. But first, it’s time for an entire city to eat large circles of sugar-laden cake. Every. Single. Day.
Not just any cake, New Orleans’ King Cake. The circular brioche or cinnamon roll delight usually covered in purple, green, and gold sugar is back. Area bakeries and grocers began stocking shelves and entire aisles of groceries last weekend. Locals responded swiftly and en masse.
Whether your traditional family preference has always been Haydel’s Bakery, Manny Randazzo’s, Gambino’s or Dong Phuong, today’s Mardi Gras cake selection brings variety.
Before the year 2000, there was no question of which “type” of King Cake we could buy. King Cake was, simply, King Cake. Chances were, your King Cake was purchased at McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe. New Orleanians had only two choices: the smaller round King Cake or the large oval classroom size. The cake was plain with no filling, akin to French bread, narrow with a thin crust, only barely sweet, and covered with loads of sparkly messy colored sugar crystals. King Cakes have changed since McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe held sovereignty over the local court of King Cake.
This year’s awards for Uptown originality in King Cake are Sucre, District: Donut, Sliders and Brew and Gracious Bakery.
Sucre’s entry is a Sugar & Spice King Cake, a braided slightly spicy cake from new Executive Chef Ashley McMillan. The cake is sweetened with cinnamon and sugar, filled with a single-bean Swiss chocolate whipped cream cheese filling, and accented with Tabasco® Habanero Sauce. In lieu of a small plastic baby, you’ll find a mini Tabasco® Sauce bottle.
District: Donuts, Sliders, and Brew ties Sucre in the originality department with a high, flaky, light croissant King Cake lightly filled with cream cheese, topped with flecks of salted caramel, a delicate cream cheese drizzle, and pearl dragees.
Not to be outdone, Gracious Bakery’s Chef Megan Forman brought back her homage to the city’s beloved snowball flavor in her Nectar Cream King Cake. The confection is a rosy pink gold luster dust atop the icing with gold dragees and a pink vanilla and almond cream filling. They also offer a Valrhona chocolate King Cake and a traditional cinnamon version and a flaky Galettes du Roi.
Shaya, the restaurant not affiliated with the chef of the same name, is offering a salted caramel and cinnamon babka King Cake.
For the traditionalist, Uptown’s La Boulangerie still bakes its elegant Galettes du Roi, the original French King Cake. Pastry Chef Maggy Scales’ Galettes du Roi is a flaky layered pastry cake filled with traditional almond paste, and then brushed with a rich, clear sugar glaze. They also offer a chocolate hazelnut, blueberry-cream, and conventional cinnamon King Cakes. Tiny porcelain pigs, which the patisserie imports from France, are substituted for the plastic baby.
O’Delice, the Vietnamese-French Bakery and Uptown favorite, bakes an excellent King Cake. Chef Nancy Nguyen provides a more traditional cake in that’s less sweet, but then spins tradition by adding a thick cinnamon swirl. Nguyen’s cakes are also offered with a Cream Cheese Filling.
Maple Street Patisserie has an impressive selection of King Cake fillings that include, lemon, cinnamon, chocolate, strawberry, praline-pecan, cream cheese, apple, raspberry, cherry and Bavarian cream.
Uptowners can also buy King Cake at Tartine near Uptown Square, the Haydel King Cake pop-up at Sno-Bliz on Magazine, Breaux Mart, Whole Foods, and Rouses. Rouses has an enormous display of King Cakes with too many fillings to list.
Further afield, but worth the drive, Willa Jean has its popular cinnamon Caramel Crunch glaze with a cream cheese frosting King Cake. A 48-hour online preorder is recommended.
For Dong Phuong fans, the cakes are available for online order and this year offers Coconut, Pecan, and Strawberry King Cakes, as well as the Cream Cheese and Cinnamon.
The one thing all these cakes have in common is a sugary icing or glaze. Earliest memories of King Cake for most New Orleanians are the daily King Cake parties in grammar school throughout the Mardi Gras season. This was back when no one cared about sugar and carb intake.
However, it’s 2019, and New Orleans now sells gluten-free, soy-free, organic, vegan, Paleo, low-sugar and even (horror) sugar-free King Cake. Thankfully, we are still kale-free in the King Cake department.
Regarding healthier options of King Cakes, I prefer the organic cakes at Breads on Oak for flavor and texture. A drive to Dorignac’s grocery in Metairie is still the best choice for sugar-free King Cake, and the Green Fork on Prytania offers a gluten-free and vegan King Cake to meet those dietary restrictions.
Change has also affected what might be found hiding inside the cake. This year, more and more vendors are substituting unique charms and trinkets inside the cake’s interior instead of a plastic baby. As with any change in New Orleans, not all locals are happy.
Traditionalists fear not — the majority of King Cakes are still sold with a plastic baby, albeit, in today’s overly cautious world, some vendors package them separately to be used at the buyer’s discretion.
On Monday, my old-fashioned Haydel’s Bakery King Cake arrived with the plastic baby hidden deep inside the moist, sugary cinnamon roll. My friend was delighted by the surprise when she found it, and I was grateful the tradition had been honored.
Kristine Froeba is a fourth generation Uptown girl whose varied background includes food and travel writing, celebrity ghost writing, public relations, social media management, fundraising, preservationist, reluctant tabloid hack, and litigation specialist. She describes herself as part foodie, part writer, part historian, historic renovation zealot, and full time dabbler.