What are king cakes and why is there a baby in king cake? The simple answer is: Jesus. Not clear enough for you? Read on to find out more.
My mom always said, “Don’t play with your food,” but how could I resist after finding out about king cake—a cake with a literal toy hidden in it? I can’t tell you how many times I got in trouble for dipping my Donatello action figure into my ice cream (okay, it was just once, but it was great). And now it’s time to teach everyone else looking for an excuse to bury playthings in dessert about the king cake tradition, so that they can explain to their parents the importance of shoving a Paw Patrol dog in their cupcakes.
What is a king cake and when do you eat king cake?
In America, the king cake is a Mardi Gras tradition. While it has become a secular holiday, Mardi Gras celebrates the last day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time when many Christians abstain from one food or another. So, naturally, they have to cram in every hedonistic impulse they can the night before Lent begins, such as collecting strands of beads, drinking many, many hurricane cocktails by the yardful, and eating—so much eating—including kind cake. Now you see why the alternate name of “Fat Tuesday” is apropos.
The most common kind of king cake has the taste and consistency of a cinnamon roll that is drizzled with sugar and icing. Sometimes, the cake has an extra filling like cream cheese or the Southern delicacy, praline. It’s common to use purple, gold, and green icings, which are the traditional colors of Mardi Gras, representing justice, power, and faith, respectively. The variation of king cake that makes me feel the most hedonistic is called the Zulu king cake, which is filled with chocolate and topped with chocolate sauce and shaved coconut.
If that wasn’t enough, the creators of the king cake said, “Screw it, let’s make it so that someone might choke eating this!” So tradition demands bakers put a little porcelain baby into the cake (a far cry from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle), which represents the baby Jesus. When the cake is sliced and distributed at a party, the person who gets the baby in their slice is said to have good luck for the next year—as long as they don’t chip a tooth on the baby or accidentally swallow it. Also, that person has to buy next year’s king cake. Some luck!
Where does king cake come from?
The baking tradition of putting a weird thing in a cake for someone to find goes all the way back to ancient Rome. During their Saturnalia celebration, the Romans would go hog wild by subverting all their social norms. This included the nobles serving their slaves. A cake was made and a dry bean was hidden inside; the slave who found the bean would be crowned king of the festival and get to boss people around.
As the Roman empire spread, it brought its traditions with it. European countries like Germany, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium all practice some form of king cake tradition. As the Roman Empire transitioned into the “Holy” Roman Empire, pagan traditions like these became subsumed into Christianity and developed to have their own meaning. With Christian influence, the king cake became associated with the feast of the Epiphany, which recognizes the Three Magi (or Kings) going to visit baby Jesus in the manger. See how all the pieces are coming together? The feast of Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season in the Roman Catholic calendar and the start of Epiphany season, which goes right up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
Once French colonists came to North America and settled in the Mississippi Delta area, the king cake really cemented itself in the American Christian tradition. Some people even eat king cakes throughout the entirety of Epiphany season.
What happens if I swallow the baby?
The person who gets the baby is considered lucky, so congratulations! You win an extra special prize of a trip to the hospital for emergency porcelain baby surgery. Apparently that has become a problem enough that bakers will now just place the baby on top of the cake instead of putting it inside. That seems kind of anticlimactic to me. Obviously, the smartest thing to do would be to make the cake bigger and just use a G.I. Joe. No one could possibly choke on a Cobra Commander.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!