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If you live in New Orleans, you've already been celebrating Mardi Gras for weeks—with parades commencing as early as last weekend even though the actual holiday falls on February 9th. (Truth be told, some communities start social activities associated with Mardi Gras as early as November!) Which is all in keeping with the holiday's identity: Fat Tuesday, the Carnival, a celebration of excess, and a long and vibrant pause for indulgence before the Lenten season.
And to fill that delicious, indulgent pause: King Cake!
You can make one (see above), or you can have one baked in the South and shipped to your door—tiny plastic baby included in the dough. If you're opting for the latter, here are our picks for the most-loved mail-order king cakes no matter where you live:
Manny Randazzo King Cakes (Metairie, LA)
The current owner of Randazzo's is Manny himself, the son of the company's founder (who opened the first Randazzo Bakery in Chalmette, Louisiana, in 1965)—who decided in 1995 to dedicate their entire bakery business to focusing on king cakes (so you know they're good).
The cake: The Randazzo king cake is for icing lovers—it's slathered, smothered, and covered in a sweet white icing (you can even opt for cream-cheese icing to be "injected" throughout), in the style of a squidgy Danish pastry. Colored sprinkles give it color, but not garishness.
The damage: A "Traditional Medium King Cake" starts at $52.93, shipping included.
Paul's Pastry Shop (Picayune, MS)
Less of a dive than some of the other top contenders for best king cake, Paul's calls its king cake "world famous." The decorations (icing, sprinkles) will arrive on the side if you order—as opposed to pre-decorated if you grab one in-store—to ensure a less messy journey to your home, and then you get the fun bonus of decorating it yourself.
The cake: With a slightly-sweet, light brioche dough, this cake comes in 25 flavors (but the best is arguably fruit-and-cream cheese).
The damage: A "Medium King Cake" starts at $55.95, shipping included.
Haydel's Bakery (New Orleans, LA)
One of the most reliable and locally loved king cake destinations in New Orleans, Haydel's serves up classic king cakes in addition to a black-and-gold one (Go Saints!), plus colors for a variety of holidays: red and green for Christmas, pastels for Easter, black and orange for Halloween, and heart-shaped for Valentine's Day.
The cake: Soft and moist, with glassy sprinkles that bleed their color on the icing, in keeping with the classic look.
The damage: Traditional king cakes start at $45.
Joe Gambino's Bakery (New Orleans, LA)
Sometimes considered a rival of Hydel's, Gambino's is another longstanding New Orleans bakery serving up classic king cakes. The year after Katrina, they shaped the plastic baby (that's traditionally embedded in the cake) like a FEMA trailer.
The cake: A thick layer of cinnamon throughout, with dough that's "fluffy", but "sturdy enough to hold up during shipping."
The damage: A "traditional" king cake starts at $18.50 (though express shipping to NYC brought the total to $47.77).
Poupart's Bakery (Lafayette, LA)
For a king cake with a French accent, hit up Poupart's, which will ship cakes out on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. You can opt for a traditional style (featuring a plain cream cheese filling, or cream cheese plus fruit or nut spread), but the big ticket item at Poupart's is their traditional French king cake that's laced with sweet almond cream.
The cake: The traditional French king cake is more like a pie—a round flaky pastry filled with marzipan.
The damage: A "Single Traditional French" king cake is $59 (and a double is $69). Shipping to New York counted as free.
Where do your king cake loyalties lie? Let us know your favorite bakeries in the comments.