Let them eat king cake: The history, ingredients behind the Mardi Gras classic

What's fluffy, filled with cinnamon, smothered in icing and stuffed with a tiny plastic baby? It’s king cake — a traditional dessert served during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.

The dish on winter's sweet treat

WTOP's Samantha Loss | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Walk into most bakeries and you’ll find delicacies such as cupcakes, fudge, cookies and truffles year-round. But there’s one dessert that’s only available a few weeks out of the year: the king cake.

King cakes date back to biblical times. Traditionally, the cake contained coins or beans to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany — when the Three Wise Men visited Jesus 12 days after his birth.

Over the years, the cake evolved, and in the late 1800s it found its way to New Orleans and became the traditional Mardi Gras treat.

The ingredients in king cake vary from country to country, but the symbol remains the same: it represents the Carnival season.

The New Orleans version of the king cake is similar to a glazed coffee cake and is more like a bread than a cake. It’s usually laced with cinnamon, and sometimes filled with custard or cream cheese.

The cake is circular in shape, frosted and covered with purple, green and gold sugar — the traditional colors of Mardi Gras.

“Purple representing justice, green representing faith and the gold representing power,” explains David Guas, a New Orleans native and chef and owner of Bayou Bakery.

“It’s a very specific cake that signifies a very specific time of year.”

Carnival season starts Jan. 6 and ends on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on the Christian calendar. (This year Fat Tuesday falls on Feb. 9.)

“Throughout that season, bakeries in New Orleans will make king cakes, and folks will buy them and bring them to the office or over to a friend’s house,” Guas says.

Perhaps the most alluring part of a king cake is the tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Originally, this was said to represent baby Jesus, but over time that has changed.

“Everyone always wants to get the baby. But really, what it’s come to mean over the years is that if you get the baby, you buy the next king cake,” Guas says.

Want to give king cake a try? Guas and his team at both Bayou Bakery locations (Capitol Hill and Arlington) whip up king cakes every year during Carnival season. They must be preordered, and picked up by Mardi Gras Day.

You can also find king cakes at these area locations:

Or you can order one directly from New Orleans:

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