The Real Meaning Behind the King Cake

A brief history on the celebratory Mardi Gras confection.

Michelle Darrisaw
Photo: Arina Photography/Getty

Where there’s a party, there’s cake. And for the biggest party held every year in the French Quarter, it’s only fitting to have the most stately cake of them all: king cake—a sweet roll that’s equal parts delicious and festive. As the name implies, the origin of this colorful, oval-shaped dessert is rooted in royalty and rich in tradition. With Fat Tuesday just around the corner, discover the real meaning behind the signature baked good of Carnival season in New Orleans. It’s time to mark your calendars for February 28, and “let the good times roll.”

What is It?

In two words—sensory overload. But more specifically, it’s a frosted seasonal treat that Mardi Gras partygoers eat between January 6, otherwise known as King’s Day or Twelfth Night, and Fat Tuesday. Scrolling through your newsfeed on Instagram or Pinterest, you’ve probably already seen variations of this pastry, with its jarring bold colors, resembling something made from a pack of Skittles. Relax. There is a secret ingredient, but Skittles aren’t involved.

Typically, king cake is made of a rich, brioche dough and a wide array of fillings, such as cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. But the rainbow magic is found in the glaze and sprinkles, which are usually gold, green, and purple. Even the colors of the icing (and royal colors of Mardi Gras) have a deeper meaning. Gold represents power, green is associated with faith, and purple illustrates justice. King cake is baked without a center, like your average Bundt cake, except buried inside the batter is a tiny, plastic baby figurine.

Wait, Why is There a Baby Inside?

Well, there are two theories. Some believe the plastic baby is symbolism of Baby Jesus because of the religious connection to King’s Day. Others, however, believe the popular New Orleans lore, which suggests that an elaborate cake was served with a bean or ring placed inside during the commemoration of the king’s ball in colonial Louisiana. Whoever found the bean or trinket in his or her slice of cake would be crowned the king or queen of the balls leading up to the lavish finale on Mardi Gras.

Rather than a bean or expensive ring, the plastic effigy is mostly used today as an emblem of good luck. Though as history would have it, the lucky individual who scores the piece of king cake with the baby inside is said to gain favor, and they’re also tasked with hosting duties and bringing their own king cake for next year’s revelry.

What About The Name?

The name is derived from the Three Wise Men in the Bible, who came bearing gifts for Baby Jesus on the Twelfth Night. King cake is first served on King’s Day (January 6) and lasts through the eve of Mardi Gras to celebrate the coming of the three kings, as well as to honor them with a sweet homage to their jeweled crowns.

How Can I Get in on the Fun?

Louisianians can find a king cake at most local bakeries up and down the Gulf Coast. But if The Big Easy isn’t on your vacation bucket list between now and February 28, you can make your own homemade version of this traditional recipe and this cream cheese-filled delicacy. Baby not included.