If you’ve ever been in New Orleans during that oh-so festive time of year we like to call Carnival Season (leading up to Mardi Gras Day), you’ve probably experienced the joy of tasting a king cake. While the rest of the country is still mourning the end of the Christmas holiday season, we’re celebrating the arrival of Carnival season in New Orleans.

king cake

King cake is the defining treat of Carnival season. (Photo courtesy Eric Wagner on Flickr)

One of the biggest signs it’s Carnival season in New Orleans? Walk into any bakery or grocery store, and you’ll find king cake — a delicious purple, gold, and green braided cinnamon cake. While many follow the custom of eating these treats for Mardi Gras, they are often unaware of why and how this custom came to be. Let us help:

History of the Mardi Gras King Cake in New Orleans

Carnival season in New Orleans begins the Twelfth Night after Christmas on January 6 each year. As told by the Christian faith, the Twelfth Night is referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, and celebrates the coming of the wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child. It represents a time of feasting and fun. The popular custom of baking a special cake in honor of the three kings has taken place throughout the years, thus the creation of a “King’s Cake.”

Over the years, the cake’s decorations have become more and more festive. At first, the cake remained just a simple ring of dough with light decoration. The basic king cake has grown to a braided dough with colored frosting and sprinkles of purple, gold, and green — the traditional colors of Mardi Gras, meaning justice (purple), power (gold), and faith (green).

New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake Customs

Many restaurants like to create their special version of the cake, resulting in various tasting competitions throughout New Orleans.  The 2016 King Cake Festival in New Orleans is an opportunity to try ’em all, and for a good cause at that: proceeds benefit a local hospital for children and babies. Speaking of babies…

Each cake comes with a small plastic, pink baby inside. According to custom, whoever cuts the slice of cake that has the baby in it is king for the day — and also has to purchase the next king cake.  This process repeats until the end of Carnival season, on Mardi Gras Day, which is Tuesday, Feb. 9 this year. (Due to choking hazards, many king now come with the baby on the outside, giving the buyer of the cake the option to add it to the cake.)

Where to Find King Cake Near Our Hotel

We recommend heading to Sucre on Conti Street to try their famous king cake and other creative versions, like their king cake macarons. You can also visit the Rouses Supermarket on Royal Street to pick up an affordable whole cake.

Prefer a drinkable version? Try the king cake old fashioned at SoBou, complete with a baby frozen right inside the ice cube! Need more options? Explore this comprehensive guide to king cakes on GoNOLA.com.