Fabled New Orleans coffee cake comes with history -- and a surprise

Fabled New Orleans coffee cake comes with history -- and a surprise
January 21, 2010

It's a coffee cake with a twist and a history. The feted king cake of New Orleans is a confection made of braided Danish pastry, laced with cinnamon. Traditionally it's served between Epiphany (Twelfth Night) and Mardi Gras, which this year is celebrated on Feb. 16.

The pastry is often topped with sugar crystals in the colors of Carnival: purple representing justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Hidden in each king cake is a tiny ceramic or plastic baby trinket. By tradition, the person who finds the baby must buy the next king cake or host the next party.

The king cake's origins are French. In the years immediately following the Civil War, Twelfth Night revelers held a society ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction.

This society event spawned parties throughout New Orleans. After a family entertained with a king cake on Twelfth Night, others would continue each weekend through Mardi Gras, with the trinket-finder throwing the next party, and so on. Now, schools and offices have largely taken over with one-day parties.

Contemporary king cakes are often filled with cream cheese or fruit fillings, and some have a white icing glaze. The classic king cake is plain and oval-shaped.

The traditions associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans are no longer confined to the city. Bakers all across the country create king cakes to mark the days leading up to Lent.
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