Why is there a little baby hidden in king cakes?
Nothing signifies the start of Carnival like king cakes. These tasty pastries traditionally make their seasonal debut on Jan. 6, which is known as King's Day, Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the night when Christians celebrate the three kings visiting the baby Jesus.
The oval-shaped cakes usually are made of braided cinnamon dough, covered with icing or sprinkled with sugar colored in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (for faith) and gold (for power). Some folks like their cakes plain, but there are a variety of fillings available, including cream cheese, lemon and chocolate.
The king cake has its roots in medieval France and Spain. In colonial Louisiana, Creoles celebrated this time of year with the bal du roi (king's ball), where they served a fancy cake with a bean placed inside. The person who found the bean in his or her piece of cake became the king or queen of the next ball, creating a series of balls that would culminate with the final grand event on Mardi Gras evening.
Over the years, the practice spread beyond Mardi Gras royalty. The person who received the prize — which instead of a bean could be a nut, a coin or even a ring — would be king or queen for the day and in charge of hosting the next party or supplying the next king cake, a tradition that remains today.
In the 1940s, McKenzie's Bakery owner Donald Entringer baked and sold king cakes to locals. One day, a traveling salesman visited the baker and had an overabundance of little porcelain dolls he hoped to sell. Entringer bought the dolls to hide in the king cakes. Eventually, he ran out of the porcelain dolls and bought less expensive plastic ones. Over time, people have claimed that the plastic baby represents baby Jesus because of the season's religious connection to King's Day.
Today, thousands of king cakes are shipped all over the world. In the early 1990s, when large numbers of the cakes started being shipped to other cities, bakeries stopped placing the baby inside the cake for fear that people unfamiliar with our local customs might choke on the trinket. The baby is now loose inside the king cake box for purchasers to tuck in the cake themselves.