When you think of Mardi Gras, you probably think of New Orleans parades, Bourbon Street and strands of colorful beads being tossed in the air. But the celebration has traditional food, too. Have a healthy helping of traditional Mardi Gras recipes and then end your celebration with a slice of king cake. King cake—also known as three kings cake or galette des rois in French—is a sweet pastry that’s traditional to Mardi Gras celebrations across the country. It’s coated in thick frosting and decorated with colorful sugar sprinkles.
But there’s something special about a king cake that goes beyond its ingredients. It has a toy baby inside.
Wait. Why Is There a Baby?
The baby is a symbol of good luck in the coming year. Traditionally, there’s only one hidden inside the cake. Whoever finds it is dubbed king or queen for the evening. Along with bragging rights, king cake royalty means you’re in charge of buying—or making—the cake for the next year’s Fat Tuesday celebration.
The History Behind the Toy
The toy baby inside isn’t just a toy. It’s said to symbolize baby Jesus. The tradition originated centuries ago in areas such as France and Spain, where wreath-shaped cakes were eaten on King’s Day (Jan. 6) to honor the Three Kings in the nativity story. They were much more simple than the elaborate green, yellow and purple creations you’d find in the French Quarter today. When European immigrants made their way to America, they brought along the recipe.
By the 19th century, king cake had become a staple dessert for Mardi Gras celebrations and would be served at New Orleans’ annual King’s Ball. That’s when bakers began to hide objects inside the cake. It was usually a fava bean, but sometimes a pecan or even a gold ring! Whoever found the bean would be named the king or queen of the ball.
Fast forward to the 1940s: A traveling salesman happened to have a surplus of porcelain babies while traveling in New Orleans. He brought the idea to hide the babies in the king cake to the most successful commercial bakery at the time, McKenzie’s Bakery. The idea stuck, although they did end up switching to plastic.
So use extra care when choosing your slice of king cake this Mardi Gras. You might end up with a forkful of good fortune!