King Cake : History and traditions

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King cake is a traditional desert eaten during Epiphany on January 6th. Depending on countries, it can be also eaten during the pre-Lenten celebrations until Fat Tuesday.  Let’s go for an introduction to King Cake’s history !

Historical origins of King Cake

King Cake finds its origin with the biblical three Magi Kings Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior. During the Saturnales (roman feasts from the end of December to the beginning of January), roman people designated a slave as “king of the day”. When the banquet began, roman used the figurine as “ballot” to elect the ” (prince of Saturnales). This concept was a pretext to reinforce the domestical affections and gave to the king the honor to exauce everything he desired. To ensure a random distribution, the youngest person slides under the table and names the recipient. At the beginning, 300 years ago (oh yes anyway!) the King Cake looked like a dry French bread type dough with sugar on top and a bean inside, now remplaced by a porcelaine trinket. The use of the figurine comes from Greek people, who used it to elect their magistrates. The same for the roman to elect the master of Saturnales. Porcelaine trinkets appeared from 18th century. Under the Revolution, the figurine were replaced by Phrygian caps. In catholic lithurgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany commemorated on January the 6th celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The three Magi represented as kings offered to little Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The King cake is known to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870.

Representation of the Adoration of the Magi in 17th century by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Representation of the Adoration of the Magi in 17th century by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5) is popularly known as Twelfth Night (the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve until this night). The season for King Cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelfth Night and Epiphany Day), up until Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday;” the day before the start of Lent. This food tradition is now popular across the world with different rituals. For example, in United States, especially in New Orleans, the King cake is usually associated with “Fat Tuesday”. That’s why a carnaval is organized, celebrations start from Epiphany Eve until Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.  The official colors of Mardi Gras (created in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex) are purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. 

The bean before a trinket hidden

The King Cake is traditionnaly made with puff pastry and frangipane but it depends on regions and countries as well. For example, in the South of France, “le gâteau des rois” is made with brioche and candied fruits. Don’t worry, the both are delicious!

At first, a bean was hidden inside the King Cake in roman tradition but it has been replaced first by porcelain and nowadays by plastic figurines. These plastic figurines can represent baby Jesus but also characters of movies, cartoons, animals etc… Just below, a selection of original figurines :

  • Schtroumpf figurines
  • Harry Potter collection
  • cartoons
  • tour de france

In countries which celebrate Epiphany on “Fat Tuesday”, a porcelain baby is hidden inside the cake such as below. Don’t be afraid with this baby, he is harmless!

A baby hidden inside the King's cake celebrated on Fat Tuesday in some countries

Not. Creepy. At All.

Originally, the baby symbolized Jesus but now it’s linked with luck and prosperity to anyone finds it. In some traditions, the finder of the baby is designed as the king or the queen for the evening. And in some countries as France, after getting the figurine, the person gets a crown and has the privilege to choose a queen or a king.

Breaking news! In United States, bakers prefer hide the trinket outside the King cake to avoid a court case. It could be a joke but yes it’s true ! Indeed, if a customer were to stifle or break a tooth against a bean, the pastry cook might be sued. Two french bakeries have kept the trinkets but with a small text explaining what it is and with precautions.

Selection of King cake traditions

Let’s now take a look at some traditions around the world !

In the Southern United States, the tradition was brought to the area by colonists from France and Spain and is associated with Carnival.

In Spanish-speaking countries, the King Cake, called The roscon de reyes or rosca de reyes in Latin America, is traditionnaly degusted  during The Dia de los reyes magos (“Day of the Three Wisemen”). Before going to bed, mexican children leave a shoe outside their home, filled with hay or dried grass and a bowl of water as a present for the animals the reyes ride, along with a note for the reyes. The roscón de reyes has an oval shape to symbolize a crown. For decoration, people sometimes use dried and candied fruits such as figs, quince or cherries. The fruit symbolizes the many jewels that a crown would have.

The tradition of placing a bean, candy or figurine of the baby Jesus inside the cake is respected. Whoever finds it must take it to the nearest church on February 2, Día de la candelaria (Candlemas Day), which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. In Mexico and the Mexican diaspora in the United States, people who find the baby Jesus figurine in their piece of cake usually agree to host a party on Candlemas and to provide the guests with tamales and atole.

In Argentina, the tradition of savoring a rosca on January 6 is also followed, although no figurine is included. In addition, a similar version with whole cooked eggs on top of the cake is also served on Easter as rosca de Pascua (Easter thread). 

The French “galette des rois” tradition holds that the cake is “to draw the Kings” to the Epiphany. A figurine, la fève, which can represents anything from a car to a cartoon character, is hidden in the cake and  whoever finds the trinket in his or her slice becomes King for the day and will have to offer the next cake. To ensure a random distribution of the cake shares, it is naturally to the youngest person to go under the table and choose who will get each slice.

If you had the figurine in your King Cake send us your best pictures on instagram with #digitalfoodtv !

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