Emily G wrote the following comment:
I've heard of the tradition of a king cake but I have never seen or eaten one. They are not sold around here. I wonder if it was never a widespread tradition, or if only certain areas of the US ever observed it. Maybe it's just a southern thing. I live in Ohio.
I guess in the United States that answer is "yes". They are especially a New Orleans tradition and are popular wherever Mardis Gras is celebrated, generally along the Gulf coast from Mobile, AL to Galveston, TX. However, Germany has their version: Dreikoenigskuchen. Spain and Mexico have Rosca de Reyes. The New Orleans version comes from the French tradition of Gateau des Rois. According to Rao's Bakery's History of the King Cake:
The New Orleans tradition of celebrating the feast of the three Magi with a special cake is rooted in several European cultures. As far back as the first half of the sixteenth century, France commemorated King’s Day, which falls twelve days after Christmas, with a Twelfth Night cake. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV took part in at least one Twelfth Night festival where a bean or ceramic figure was hidden in the cake, also known as a gateau des Rois (King's Cake).
The Twelfth Night cake custom is still widely observed in France, where families and friends gather around one of the different cakes served at King cake soirees. In some regions the couronne, made from brioche dough topped with a fruit-festooned sugar glaze, is favored. In Paris and other major cities, a fancier galette filled with frangipane (almond cream paste), prevail.
"In most areas of France, a tiny plastic king or queen is baked into the galette des Rois, but in some rural towns you can still find the little ceramic toys and animals that have been inserted in the cake's for hundreds of years." Jean-Luc Albian, a French pastry chef who bakes the French-style cakes in his suburban New Orleans shop, Maurice French Pastries. "When we have a King cake party in France, we refer to the galette de Rois tradition as pulling the king or queen," he continues. "The guest who receives a serving with the trinket hidden inside picks a consort. Then the pair, who will host the next King’s Day Party, are crowned with the gold and silver paper diadems that adorn the cake. In France, King’s Day celebrations end on January 31."
Here's a link to a video that shows New Orleans style King Cakes being made at Randazzo's Bakery in Slidell, Louisiana. Slidell is separated from New Orleans by Lake Pontchartrain.
In most traditions, the one who finds the baby or bean gets to be King or Queen for a day, but, appropriately, there is usually a corresponding responsibility.
From what I've read about Rosca de Reyes, it seems the tradition is to only eat it on Epiphany. Whoever gets the baby must prepare a dinner party of tamales and hot chocolate on Candlemas Day (Feast of the Presentation) for the other members of the Epiphany party. The Nativity scene will be put away, and some traditions require that the host dress a doll representing the infant Jesus in christening clothes and present him at the parish church.
The Spanish/Mexican and original French versions of the celebration seem to be more in line with the spirit of the traditional Catholic calendar. The French end their King Cake season on Jan. 31; the Spanish/Mexicans complete the King Cake festivities on Candlemas, Feb. 2.
The traditional liturgical calendar begins counting down the days before Easter by naming the three Sundays before Lent: Seventy days before Easter is Septuagesima Sunday (3 Sundays before Lent), 60 days before Easter is Sexagesima Sunday (2 Sundays before Lent), and 50 days before Easter is Quinquagesima Sunday (1 Sunday before Lent). It is the Church's way of gradually sobering us and preparing us for the Lenten season.
Partying and eating King Cakes right up to Ash Wednesday appears to me to be where the secular New Orleans-based Carnival season takes over.
However, the true King Cake tradition is beautiful and a great way to promote the celebration of the Christmas season.
Emma and her Louisiana friends Kyrie, Julia, and Mary Catherine made their own version of the King Cake on Saturday. They actually made two--one for us to eat and one to take to the contra dance that night.
Mary Catherine was the foods photographer for the girls' King Cake Project.
Here's the recipe they used:
2 (8-oz.) cans crescent rolls
1 (8-oz.) package softened cream cheese
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup pie filling (your choice)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon milk or juice
Purple, yellow, green colored sugar
Instead of sugar, you may tint the glaze with food coloring.
Preheat oven to 350. Lightly spray a pizza pan or baking dish with cooking spray. Blend together the softened cheese, sugar, and vanilla. Divide the rolls into individual pieces and lay them around the pan with the wide edge on the outside and the point toward the center, overlapping the edges slightly. Spread the cheese mixture on the crescents. Spread the pie filling over the cheese. Fold the crescents over the filling and bake for 25-30 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes. Insert the baby or bean representing the Christ Child. Prepare glaze. Blend powdered sugar and liquid until smooth. Drizzle over warm cake. Sprinkle colored sugars over the glaze. Serve warm.