Food / Things I Like / Travel

A very unofficial guide to the New Orleans king cake

IMG_5499New Orleanians and their king cakes have something very special with each other. This year, that special something is the 58 days they have to find the iconic seasonal cakes at grocery stores, gas stations, upscale restaurants, downhome cafes and everywhere in between, if you happen to be in New Orleans, that is.  At the Cake Café, you can get your king cake with goat cheese and apples. At the daiquiri bar in the Garden District, you can get a gallon of King Cake daiquiri in a go jug. There’s king cake ice cream, gelato and vodka. It’s hard not to find yourself thinking about trying each king cake you pass.

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Here is my own frequently asked questions…. answered… for you… about king cake. Bear in mind, I’m not a local nor do I pretend to be; although, I did have a Cajun grandma, so some of this is just in my DNA.

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What do king cakes say about New Orleans? Well, I’d venture to say that there are probably a thousand variations and 58 slices only scratch the surface of a deep gastronomic tradition of hospitality and pleasure in this the most gracious of food cities I know.

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What’s a king cake?  A king cake is a seasonal bakery item (can be a cupcake, usually looks like a wreathed bread, mostly adorned with purple, gold and green icing, sugar and sprinkles) that symbolizes the festive period between the Epiphany (also known as the Twelfth Night) and Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras). After Mardi Gras comes Ash Wednesday and 40 days of good behavior plus no meat on Fridays, if you subscribe to the Judeo-Christian canon. King cakes originally came with a bean baked inside to symbolize the king’s favor and/or privilege. Sometime in the mid-20th century, a grocer substituted a plastic baby for the bean and the move stuck.

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You just spent four days in New Orleans and all you want to write about is cake?
Yes. On my most recent trip to New Orleans, cake came up in conversation multiple times. One person spoke of the ceremonial and beautiful ritual of making cakes. Another spoke of the endless variations that can take place – as with king cakes – along distinctive flavor notes of cinnamon and vanilla.

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What do king cakes taste like? They are the cinnamon roll’s more flashily dressed cousins. They know how to be noticed and they like to party.

What happens when you get the baby? Congratulations! You get to buy the next king cake.

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Who makes the best king cake? The New Orleans King Cake Festival might give you a good answer to that. I was able to attend and see the mind-blowing variety of king cakes, plus abundant people watching available. Fittingly, this festival is sponsored by a health system to benefit babies and mothers. Those little plastic babies are helping real babies.

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What happens to them after Mardi Gras? They start preparing for the next season.  They go to king cake bootcamp and king cake university, depending on their whims and wont.

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Where else did you go in New Orleans that didn’t involve king cakes? I loved eating at Root, (tobacco smoked scallops), Dante’s Kitchen, going to the Crescent City Farmers Market to buy Satsuma marmalade, strolling the aisles at Rouses and reveling in the gustatory and wallet-draining pleasures of Magazine Street.

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