It’s not as if New Orleanians ever needed an excuse to party. But after two years of COVID, the two months of indulgence known as Carnival seem pretty well-deserved. After being cancelled last year, Mardi Gras is back: the parades, the costumes, and the king cake, a traditional sweet treat eaten only at Carnival time in the Crescent City.
“Every Friday at school, kids are eating king cake,” said writer Matt Haines. “Every day in office break rooms, on the parade route, with your friends and family. King cake is everywhere.”
When Haines moved from New York to New Orleans five years ago, he was determined to find the very best king cake in town. “I started to do some research, and I realized, God, there are hundreds and hundreds of cakes out there. So, I figured I would try them all. I ended up having, like, 88 of them that year.”
Correspondent Kris Van Cleave asked, “I’m curious: what made you go, ‘I need to eat 88 king cakes this Mardi Gras season’?”
“I would have done more,” Haines replied, “but Carnival only lasts so long.”
He’s turned all that caloric heavy lifting into what he says is the first-ever book about the treat, “The Big Book of King Cake” (Susan Schadt Press).
“I’m not sure everyone realizes how diverse of a place New Orleans is,’ Haines said. “Every single cake has a unique baker who has a unique story.”
And every cake is an extension of that story.
The king cake dates back centuries to an ancient Roman festival celebrating the solstice. Adopted by Christianity, versions are still found throughout the world.
Most Louisiana king cakes are adorned with purple, green, and gold, and almost all of them come with a tiny plastic baby.
“Whoever gets the baby has to bring the next cake,” said Nick Caywood, of Caywood & Randazzo’s Bakery.
Van Cleave said, “That is a great tradition for you guys – every one of these cakes that goes out, somebody’s going to be ordering another one!”
Web extra: Matt Haines explains the tradition of the king cake baby:
Every Carnival season, the Caywood brothers, Nick and Kenny Jr., along with the rest of their family at Caywood and Randazzo’s bakery, will knead, braid, fill, bake, ice, and pack 50,000 cakes, with 50,000 babies hidden inside.
Pretty hard work for the Big Easy! But they sell enough king cakes during Mardis Gras to close for the rest of the year.
Van Cleave asked what they do after king cakes season is done. “Vacation, and go fishing, for four months,” Kenny Jr. replied, “and then hunting for three months.”
“I’m in the wrong business!” Van Cleave exclaimed.
Just down the road at Dong Phuong Bakery, they’re working around the clock under the watchful eye of founder Huong Tran. She fled Vietnam after the war and settled in New Orleans. Her daughter, Linh, suggested they start selling king cakes after Katrina.
“We wanted to give our community, our Vietnamese community, an option to say, ‘Hey, yes, you got the baby? We’re going to go get a king cake from Dong Phuong and you can bring it in and you can be proud of it,’” Linh said.
That first year they sold only about a hundred. Now they can barely keep up. In 2018 the bakery became king cake royalty, earning the prestigious James Beard Award.
Van Cleave asked, “Do you ever wonder who eats all this cake?”
“I do sometimes!” Linh replied.
It’s estimated New Orleanians eat about 750,000 king cakes every year. Not so hard to believe, when you consider everything that qualifies as a king cake.
At her La Vie en Rose Café, Kirby Jones pays homage to her Creole roots with two offerings: a sweet rose-flavored cake, and a savory cake stuffed with crawfish. “We have a non-traditional king cake,” she said. “So, there are no rules over here.”
Van Cleave asked, “Do you get challenged? Because this doesn’t look like a king cake?”
“Sure. Yes. So, that’s why we have these fun names for them: The Rose Queen cake, and the Don Creole.”
While working on his book, Matt Haines discovered endless ways bakers can make a king cake, but only one way to eat them – with a whole lot of people.
“You’re not supposed to eat king cakes by yourself; you’re supposed to share it,” he said. “The cakes are delicious, but the fun part about it is sharing Carnival season with everybody. That’s what makes it special. That’s what normal is in New Orleans. And it feels like we’re heading back in that direction.”
RECIPE: Mardi Gras King Cake from the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Lauren Barnello.