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King cake is a baked good featured in the seasonal Christmas and Carnival traditions of numerous cultures. It has many different spellings and names, such as king's cake or three kings cake, depending on the country in which the festival is being celebrated. Baked into the cake is an ornament of some kind, typically a baby, that confers certain responsibilities on the person who discovers it.
The cake is named after the three kings of biblical tradition, who journeyed from the East to see the newly born Christ-child. King cake is consumed in association with the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the day on which some Christians celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the human incarnation of God, to the three non-Jewish, or gentile, kings from the East. The small baby hidden within the cake represents the discovery of the Christ-child.
The season for eating king cake begins on January 6, called Epiphany, and lasts through Carnival, which ends the day before Ash Wednesday, 40 days prior to Easter Sunday. The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday is called Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. It is, traditionally, the last night to indulge any sensual yearnings before the beginning of fasting, during Lent. Depending on the country, king cake may be offered on the Feast of the Epiphany, at Mardi Gras, or every week in between.
In the United States, king cake is consumed on or around the day of the Mardi Gras festival, which is held, primarily, in New Orleans, Louisiana and in other towns and cities along the Gulf Coast. The French and Spanish colonists, who were predominantly Roman Catholic, brought the Carnival traditions with them to the New World. In the US, the king cake is typically cinnamon bread, twisted into a wreath-shape and covered in icing. The traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green are displayed on the cake, usually in colored icing or sprinkles.
In Spanish-speaking countries, king cake is an oval cake decorated with fruits. This king cake variation is referred to as rosca de reyes and is consumed on Epiphany. In some countries, the person who finds the Christ-child takes it to church on Candlemas Day, February 2. In Mexico, the finder must supply atole and tamales at a party that he or she hosts on that day.
The French call the cake la galette des rois. This king cake is consumed for several days around Epiphany. La feve is the collectible trinket, which can depict almost any figure or event from religion or popular culture, found within the cake. The person who finds the ornament is pronounced king and adorned with a paper crown.
I've always associated king cake around here with Mardi Gras. I live about eight hours driving time from New Orleans, so I usually run into someone who gets down there for Mardi Gras.
A good many bakeries here will offer king cake, and some contract with New Orleans bakeries to get fresh baked king cakes shipped in for sale. Since we're pretty close, that's not a big problem.
King cakes are showy, but they have to be done right, or they're just too cloyingly sweet for me. I like a spicier filing and a more pastry like dough. Some people like a really bready dough and a sweet filling and glaze. It's an individual thing.