Mardi Gras

How King Cake Came to Rule Mardi Gras

The colorful history behind this sweet tradition.

January 19, 2022
Photo by Mark Weinberg

About a decade ago, Jennifer Samuels would spend the months of Carnival in New Orleans furiously baking, baking, baking. Even though La Dolce Nola, which she owned, was a gelato shop, there was one thing every year that helped keep things going: King cake.

"It went really, really well," Samuels said. Back then, she was making cakes with flavors that seemed "a little out there," beyond the traditional cinnamon and brioche locals know and instead reached for fresh strawberry, lemon curd, and Nutella. Though the gelato shop ended up closing, her obsession with finding the next most interesting flavor lived on. It turns out, she wasn't alone, and today Samuels runs The King Cake Hub, a local pop-up that serves as a king cake clearinghouse—a one-stop shop for hungry locals to find 16 bakeries' more than 60 flavors of cakes.

These days during Carnival in New Orleans—though most bakeries will offer a "traditional" style cake with a light, brioche-style cake, often laced with cinnamon—it's rare to find a baker who doesn't offer at least another signature flavor, too. The 2022 season offers king cake takes like babka, pecan praline, bourbon cinnamon, boudin (a Cajun, rice-filled sausage), bananas Foster, caramel crunch, and peanut butter with banana, marshmallow and bacon.

"People are hungry for something different and something fun," Samuels said.

Though today's panoply of king cake flavors is part of a larger creative explosion some have called "the golden age of Mardi Gras," a kind of social reveling in the revelry of the season, the pastry has a long history in New Orleans that goes back more than 150 years. Traditionally available only for the weeks between Twelfth Night on January 6th and Mardi Gras Day, king cakes become a prerequisite to any gathering, a short-lived omnipresence in the city—and a reason to celebrate all on their own.

"It's not good for my diet plan," laughed David Beriss, a food anthropologist at the University of New Orleans. "But it is good for my soul."

The history of king cake in New Orleans begins not with Mardi Gras, but with Christianity. Twelfth Night marks the revelation of the Three Kings' that Jesus was God incarnate, and Catholics have long marked the day with pastries, like the French galette des rois, according to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Eventually, the date also became tied to the beginning of Carnival, which culminates on Mardi Gras, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

By January 6th, 1870, New Orleanians were already parading thanks to the first parading organization, or krewe, which hit the streets more than a decade earlier, and the city's elite were forming new society organizations to give masked balls to mark the season. That year, the Twelfth Night Revelers hosted their own ball in the city's new Opera House, and the Mardi Gras connection to king cake was complete. According to Samuel Kinser's "Carnival, American Style," the Revelers had a cake baked with a bean hidden inside, intending to crown whoever received it as the ball's king or queen for the night. (In what might be the most Mardi Gras apropos part of the story, as Kinser tells it, the bean was lost that first year "in the exuberance" of the moment.)

In the decades since, king cakes became more than a fun party detail and often cause for celebration themselves. By the early 1900s, the idea that whoever found the bean or small favor inside the cake would host the next party or bring the next cake had taken hold, but it wasn't until McKenzie's Bakery popularized purple, green and gold sugar atop its king cakes in the latter half of the 20th century that the cakes took on a signature look.

Fillings came a bit later, according to Matt Haines, author of "The Big Book of King Cake," who notes that Cartozzo's Bakery began experimenting with Bavarian cream fillings in 1983. The experiment worked, and locals soon began finding options with classic fruit fillings and cream cheese inside their king cakes.

The art of baking a king cake is not for the faint of heart or the light on time, so it's a tradition that, while it can be accomplished at home, is usually outsourced to bakeries. Plus, the unending flavor variations means there's always something new to try.

"King cake is definitely a New Orleans phenomenon," Beriss said. "I know friends who make king cakes of all sorts in other parts of the country, but the real creativity around king cakes is here."

That creativity, however, is limited to the Carnival season, which lends a sense of urgency for anyone wanting to snag a slice of their favorites.

"People are just super hungry for anything Mardi Gras, anything Carnival," Samuels said. "People are ready. We're off to a good start."

Do you bake a King Cake for Mardis Gras? Let us know in the comments below!
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Chelsea Brasted

Written by: Chelsea Brasted

Reader, writer, cheeseburger lover.


Alice February 27, 2022
I am in the midst of making a king cake for my coworkers for tomorrow. The recipe says to let it cool before icing it, so I will have to do that at 5 am before work. I have to say, the house smells delicious! Just the traditional cinnamon filling, with a dash of almond extract in the dough. No baby, because I am the only one at work who bakes, so I always bring in the next king cake anyway!
Shelley C. February 27, 2022
Just last night we had our annual King Cake and coffee party - we are Canadian, and I can tell you that it is a bright spot during our long wintertime!
Kiki17! February 27, 2022
Hello, do you know if this recipe will work with a cup for cup AP gluten free flour?