Catering and the Mardi Gras King Cake: The History and Evolution of this Infamous New Orleans Tradition

New Orleans king cake catering

What started as a treat for French and Spanish royalty, the infamous King Cake is now the signature confection served all over New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. But what is king cake, why is it so popular, and what different varieties does it come in?

At Messina’s Catering and Events, king cakes have graced our catering menus for six decades and counting–and for good reason. Few things symbolize Mardi Gras more sweetly than the famous king cake. Guests who want a truly authentic New Orleans experience expect to see a King Cake (or variations of it) as a part of their special events.

The Origin of the King Cake

The King Cake tradition originated in the Middle Ages in Old World France. At the time, a pastry called galette des rois was served on Epiphany, and often eaten by royalty. The pastry became a symbol of kings and queens and good fortune for peasants who would have considered themselves very lucky to get a piece of it.

In 1791, when Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were imprisoned during the French Revolution, they ordered a special cake from their pastry chef to celebrate the end of their trial. It was made from white flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and a whole almond hidden inside a shaped brioche-like pastry, which is the basic recipe for the king cake to this day.

King Cakes Signaled the Coming of Lent

In Europe, it is believed that galette des rois, which literally translates to king cake, was created as a way to use up all of the sugar, milk, and eggs that were forbidden during Lent. When these ingredients started making their way into France, they became traditional at Christmastime with a little added alcohol.

It wasn’t long before French settlers brought this tradition to Louisiana in 1870. The King Cake is an oval-shaped bakery delicacy decorated in the colors purple, green and gold symbolizing the 3 Wise Men who visited Jesus on Epiphany or “Twelfth Night”. Today, Mardi Gras (Carnival Season) begins on this Christian Holy Day of Epiphany which is January 6th each year. The French celebrated this day because this is believed to be when Jesus first showed himself to the 3 wiseman and to the world. As a symbol, a tiny plastic baby is placed inside each king cake.

The king cake quickly became a popular holiday tradition for children. Every year they would eagerly await the arrival of three kings who would bring them presents on Epiphany Day (January 6th). As time went on, people began baking cakes with different flavors and shapes in honor of the day.

king cake

How is the New Orleans King Cake Unique?

The king cakes we craft for Mardi Gras throughout New Orleans are typically an oval-shaped iced pastry that is a cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry. They are decorated with colored sugars and sprinkles of purple, green and gold. Purple signifies justice, green stands for faith, and gold means power. These colors are supposed to represent the jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany.

The Baby Inside Crowns Next Year’s King

The is a long history of hiding unexpected gifts in king cakes, including porcelain figurines and beans. In the 1950s, a commercial bakery in New Orleans called McKenzie’s started hiding porcelain babies inside their king cakes which were later swapped out for plastic babies that could be hidden after baking.

When a king cake is sliced and served at events, guests immediately search for the baby. The person who finds the baby in his/her slice is king for the day and is expected to host the king cake at the next Mardi Gras party.

Baby inside king cake

King Cakes Make Great Wedding Cakes and Grooms Cakes Year-Round

Since New Orleans is one of the country’s most popular special event destinations, it’s not surprising that King Cakes show up in various forms on catering menus year-round allowing guests to experience the King Cake tradition. Often times the “wedding cake” is several tiered King Cakes, each with a different filling. King Cakes can also be customized for sugar colors and fillings.

tiered wedding king cake

For weddings, king cakes are often also used as the groom’s cake. This tradition was brought to the South by British colonists more than a century ago. Back then, they felt the traditional wedding cake was too feminine for the manly groom, so they offered him a smaller cake often infused with liquor.

King cakes are the perfect way to showcase one of New Orleans customs to your guests and symbolize all that makes New Orleans so unique for destination weddings. It’s one more added touch that can make a New Orleans wedding even more unforgettable.

The King Cake, with a Creative Twist

Different cultures around the world have created their own version of the king cake. In recent years, there has been an influx of international flavors added to the original recipe. From red velvet to praline and bourbon, there is a flavor for everyone.

tiered king cake

King Cakes Now Go Way Beyond Fat Tuesday on Catering Menus

Why save something so delicious just for Mardi Gras or just for a cake format? The king cake is a rich and decadent dessert that can be adapted to many formats, and can form an instant connection to New Orleans. At Messina’s, we’ve adapted this infamous dish in many forms such as bread pudding, ice cream, lattes, monkey bread, and even tiered King Cake wedding cakes! The sky is the limit!