Yesterday marked our 7th annual Mardi Gras celebration and for that menu, I made dozens of individual King Cakes, shown to the right. More on the unorthodox shape later.
I first encountered King Cakes in patisseries in France where they are called Galettes des Rois, Tarts of the Kings, the kings being the Magi, the three kings whose visited the baby Jesus. Historians think that such cakes predate Christianity and that the Catholic church imposed the current interpretation on an existing cake and pagan ritual. In France as here in the US, King Cakes are available at most patisseries after Twelfth Night (January 5th, so from the 6th of January) and up to Mardi Gras (variable date).
The French galettes are square tarts of puff pastry stuffed with almond paste and they are incredibly good. King Cakes migrated to North America with French settlers and arrived in New Orleans with the displaced Acadians and have become an intrinsic part of the Mardi Gras celebration, although here, many King Cakes are incredibly bad.
Here in the US, King Cakes have morphed entirely away from the French galette prototype. Our King Cake is a ring-shaped yeast bread of brioche seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon, similar in flavor to a cinnamon roll. The large ring may be rolled and filled like a cinnamon roll, folded into a tube encasing a filling, or merely twisted. King Cakes are typically frosted with a powdered sugar glaze and topped with purple, green, and gold sugar, representing justice, faith, and power.
King Cakes, no matter the country, are known for the "baby" baked inside, an object that in the Christian tradition represents the baby Jesus. He who finds it is typically responsible for supplying the cake the next year or at the next party. In France, this baby is called a fève, literally a fava bean, because a fava bean was the traditional baby. More recently, a whole almond or pecan has replaced the fava bean. Here in the US, we tend to use plastic baby figurines. Plastic has largely replaced the ceramic figurines of decades gone by. I use a whole almond in my cakes.
I prefer my King Cakes to be rolled with a filling, just like a cinnamon roll, so that you get some filling with each bite. At home, I would bake the cake in the traditional ring, but for restaurant service, I slice the cakes into individual servings before baking. This exposes the rings which lets me soak the cakes with cinnamon and lemon syrup after they're baked for that extra bit of goodness. It also ensures that each cake gets a good layer of glaze and colored sugar. It's just a little bit nicer presentation. And yes, my King Cakes are the best of all of them that I have tasted in the US! Those are fighting words in some quarters. ;)