King Cake: A Louisianian Tradition with French Roots

The cake that accompanies Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, can take different shapes: a round galette made with puff pastry and enjoyed plain or filled with frangipane in Central and Northern France; a brioche crown, often decorated with candied fruit, in the South of France. The latter version can also be found in Louisiana!
© Randy Schmidt/Courtesy of Willa Jean Bakery, New Orleans

Round, golden, crispy king cake contains a hidden figurine (une fève) and is enjoyed from the first Sunday of January, the day of Epiphany. Known as la galette des rois in France, this frangipane-filled puff pastry delicacy has also become the unofficial symbol of the return from the holidays. Sports clubs, cultural societies, local organizations, and groups of retirees and veterans share the cake to celebrate the new year, prepare for the months ahead, and attract new members.

Even the president of France has received the country’s finest bakers to share a giant galette every year since 1975! This enormous version contains more than 15 pounds of ground almonds, but no figurine. The porcelain fève traditionally cooked in the cake is used to pick the king (or queen) for the day, but this was seen as incompatible with republican values. During the French Revolution, the Sans-Culottes movement actually abolished the galette des rois and replaced it with the galette de l’égalité.

This festive dessert has since crossed the Atlantic. While it is less popular in the United States than in France, where more than 30 million galettes are consumed every year, it remains an icon of French culture with the same standing as Beaujolais Nouveau and Bastille Day. The Louisianan version is a brioche ring and enjoyed during the carnival. As part of the celebrations, the cake is covered with sugar in the colors of Mardi Gras – gold, which represents power, green for faith, and purple for justice – and contains a pink plastic baby in place of the porcelain figurine.

This tradition inspired the New Orleans basketball team, the Pelicans, which now reveals a monstrous, giant baby mascot in February every year: King Cake Baby!