Consider this a brief history on the classic Mardi Gras sweet, the king cake.

By Julie Tremaine
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Mardi Gras King Cake with purple, yellow, and green icing
Credit: Allrecipes

If you haven't celebrated Carnival, the months-long stretch of festivities that includes Mardi Gras, then you probably haven't tried King Cake, one of the party's signature foods. In that case, you have no idea what a delicious, sweet treat you've been missing. But if you've tried the colorful pastry while visiting New Orleans — or another city like Mobile, Alabama or Tallahassee, Florida that celebrates Carnival — then you've probably spent more than a little time dreaming about when you can have another slice. But what is King Cake? Why is it only available around Mardi Gras? And most importantly, what's up with that plastic baby?

What Is King Cake?

To truly understand the dessert, you have to go back a few hundred years. King Cake as it's made around New Orleans now evolved from brioche desserts brought over by French colonists in the 18th century. The name comes from the Biblical story of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to Jesus on Epiphany, January 6, which is the first day of the Carnival season that stretches to Lent. It's also why the dessert comes with a little plastic baby, which is either baked into the cake or hidden under a slice.

While there are other versions of King Cake, the one popular in Louisiana is a sweet bread cake that tastes a little bit like a cinnamon roll, and is sometimes filled with cream or jam. The top is decorated with icing in gold, green, and purple, the traditional Mardi Gras colors. While you can eat the treat other times, if you do, you won't be eating real King Cake unless it's between January 6 and Mardi Gras.

Why Is There a Baby Hiding in King Cake?

"No matter what form your King Cake takes, it must be shared and it must have a baby," says Adley Cormier, a Louisiana historian with the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society in Lake Charles, Louisiana. That baby, he explains, "symbolized the Christ child, and signified that the lucky one who got the baby would be the honoree of that particular party, and be obligated to host the next get-together."

King Cake Recipes

If a trip South isn't in the cards this Carnival season, you can still eat King Cake at home. Make it using this highly-rated recipe, or this slightly less traditional but very cute cupcake variation. Many bakeries ship King Cakes all over the country, like Gracious Bakery in New Orleans (which also shares their recipe on New Orleans.com) and Paul's Pastry in Picayune, Mississippi.

"The cake and its shared consumption, along with the randomness of the hidden baby, provided a shared experience of what life was like and a metaphorical temporary escape from it's drudgery and sameness," says Cormier. "The person who 'got the baby' would be the subject of deference and respect. The custom was part of the topsy-turvy world that could only be part of Mardi Gras, where the peasant could be king, and the king a peasant for the day."

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