A few days ago, I posted a king cake recipe.
Although I was going to wait until next year to post on the history of this cake, it seemed apposite to do so now, as it can still be eaten for the next few days in France and until Lent in other countries.
Below is a summary of what form it takes and a bit about its history. (Post updated in 2017 for more information on Spain.)
One of my readers, Underground Pewster, commented on the aforementioned post, sharing his memories of growing up in New Orleans at this time of year, where king cakes were served throughout the Epiphany season — i.e. through Mardi Gras. The next day, of course, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Underground Pewster says:
They are usually made with a brioche dough shaped into a ring and coated with purple green and gold colored sugar or icing. A small plastic baby is inserted and whoever gets the piece with the baby is either King or Queen for the day, or in the case of traditional Carnival Krewes is made the King or Queen for the parade, or in the case of children’s Friday afternoon king cake parties at school, the kid getting the baby has to bring next week’s cake. Hence the joke that Mama said to Lil Author as he went to off to school, “If yeh git da baby, swaller it!”
For our ex-patriates’ grown up annual Mardi Gras parties, the person getting the baby hosts next year’s party.
New Orleans king cakes have become increasingly decadent culminating in an abomination called the King Cake Burger.
He helpfully sent a link to the King Cake Burger from The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’s daily newspaper. In 2014, reporter Gary Sheets gave the rundown on this monstrosity or beauty — depending on how you see it — of a burger laden with cheese and bacon, topped with a king cake.
The Food Drunk Truck created this sandwich, which remains popular.
The icing and sprinkles are in traditional Epiphany colours. Wikipedia explains:
The colors of the king cake originally came from the Christian religion. The purple symbolizes justice, the green symbolizes faith, and the gold symbolizes power. The three colors honor the three kings who visited the Christ child (Jesus) on Epiphany, the 12th day after Christmas.
As for the cake itself:
In the southern United States, the tradition was brought to the area by colonists from France and Spain and is associated with Carnival (also known as Mardi Gras). Celebrated across the Gulf Coast region from the Florida Panhandle to East Texas, it originated in French Alabama and King cake parties in Mobile are documented back to the eighteenth century.
The king cake of the Louisiana tradition comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Mardi Gras colors) with food coloring. King cakes may also be filled with additional foodstuffs- the most common being cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.
There are also variations on types of cakes and when they are served during other times of the year:
A so-called “Zulu King Cake” has chocolate icing with a coconut filling, because the Krewe of Zulu parade’s most celebrated throw is a coconut. Also, some bakers have now taken the liberty to offer king cakes for other holidays that immediately surround Mardi Gras season, such as green and red-icing king cakes for Christmas, red and pink-icing cakes for Valentine’s Day, and green and white-icing cakes for St. Patrick’s Day. Others have gone a step further and produce specialty king cakes from the beginning of football season for Louisiana State University and New Orleans Saints tailgate parties, then for Halloween, then Thanksgiving—and do not cease until after Mardi Gras season with an Easter holiday king cake.
How the king cake evolved in Europe
Before going into national and cultural variations of king cake, it is worth exploring its history in Europe.
As with so many other Christian feasts, Epiphany supplanted ancient Greek and Roman pagan holidays. Much of this also concerns the evolution of the Christmas holiday.
A French site, L’Internaute, says that around this time of year, the ancient Greeks held a festival in honour of Dionysus. We know him as the god of wine and excess. He was also the god of the seasons and the growing cycle. Occurring after Winter Solstice, this festival recognised the gradually longer days which heralded the eventual crops for the new year.
In a similar way, during Saturnalia, the Romans feted Saturn, who was asleep most of the year but woke up before Winter Solstice. Their festival, then, was held before the shortest day of the year, which was their New Year. In the beginning, the feast of Saturn revolved around agriculture and the coming growing season. Later, it was more of a civic and family-oriented time to celebrate common and personal social ties.
The festival lasted one week. During the festival, excess was the order of the day. Cakes were made in Saturn’s honour and were to be shared amongst family and friends. These cakes were round and baked until golden brown, suggesting the sun and longer days to come.
The tradition of a token of some sort designating a ruler for the day or the festival arose in ancient Rome. This tradition preceded the insertion of the token into the cake. Black and white tokens were used to designate a particular person. These tokens later evolved into the broad bean, the baby, the king and more. Today, you can even get tokens depicting film stars.
In the military a garrison would gather to nominate one of their men as commander for the day, who could do as he wished and order others about, too.
In both Greece and Rome there was another tradition for private households. The youngest member of the family, deemed to be the most innocent, sat hidden under the dining table and told his or her father who should have which piece of cake. That child was called Phoebus or Apollo after these oracular gods, seen to be prophetic.
With the spread of Christianity in the early centuries of the Church, Epiphany became the time to further contemplate our Lord’s divine nature as Saviour and Redeemer and the Magi’s recognition of this revelation, or, epiphany. Some of the earlier festive food traditions, such as cake, continued.
The Middle Ages
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the cakes were known as king cakes.
In a religious sense, this meant the Magi. In a practical sense, this was also the time of year when people had to pay a royalty to their local lord. Money — and a king cake — were given to him.
Within the family home, a large bean — generally the fava or broad bean — was inserted in the cake. Brioche formed the basis of the cake, which, depending on the country, might or might not have a filling inside. Some were shaped into rings, suggesting a crown. Oblong rings could serve more people.
The cakes were decorated with dried or candied fruit in the aforementioned colours of the Magi. These fruits represented jewels in a crown.
The Reformers and their followers — Lutherans and Calvinists — disapproved of carrying pagan practices into Christian life. They condemned the celebrations and cakes.
That said, so did a Catholic canon in France. In 1664, the Canon of Senlis opposed the eating of Epiphany Cake because it was ‘too festive’.
It is thought that frangipane, commonly used in French king cakes, dates back as far as 1226. According to legend, a Roman noblewoman, Jacopa da Settesoli, took this sweet to St Francis of Assisi as he lay dying. Pane means ‘bread’ and Frangi refers to Francis.
Others say that the word originates with the Frangipani family of Rome — also noblemen. Their name means ‘break the bread’.
A member of that family made perfumes for France’s Louis XIII.
However, L’Internaute says that Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV popularised frangipane in France. They were the first to include it in a new king cake made with puff pastry. The cake was initially known as La Parisienne.
Today, much of France enjoys the frangipane variety.
However, the northern part of France near the Belgian border and the southernmost part of the country still use brioche.
The bean and other tokens
The broad bean continued its popularity through the centuries because it was widely available.
It represented the infant Jesus.
Once porcelain manufacture began in the 18th century, the bean was sometimes replaced with a baby or a king.
Gold coins were also used.
In the 20th century, all of these — including the fava — were made out of plastic, which continues to this day. For hygiene and safety reasons, metal coins have not been used in king cakes for years.
On that note, some bakeries place the token on the outside of the cake. The buyer can then insert it himself. This is to prevent lawsuits.
Not only does the token designate the King or Queen of the Day, it is also a lighthearted sign of luck and prosperity.
But with it comes a bit of responsibility, suggesting that the King or Queen must take care of his or her subjects!
As Underground Pewster said, that person is in charge of baking the next cake or hosting the next Mardi Gras party.
This tradition also continues in other countries.
My reader Lecroix commented that New Orleans no doubt acquired their cake from former governing countries France and Spain, where it is known as a Roscón (pl. Roscones) or, in Catalonia, a tortell. The Spanish version is basically the same around the country, although price variations exist based on ingredients. For example, the Asturias region:
has the same identical circular pastry, some with marzipan cream, some not and punctuated with the same candied fruit like cherries and oranges. Also, there are two prices as well, with the same purpose.
Delish has an interesting explanation of other customs, accompanied by photographs of various king cakes.
Mexicans put a doll token in their cake. Whoever has it in their slice must host the Candlemas meal on February 2 and make the accompanying tamales.
The Portuguese have a gooey round cake, laden with colourful fruit. Whoever gets the bean buys next year’s cake.
Wherever you are in the world, there is still time to enjoy king cake!