No Mardi Gras party is complete without King Cake — the colorful braided brioche that satisfies the sweet tooth. But even more important is what's hidden in the dough, because whoever gets a slice with a miniature plastic baby inside must supply the next King Cake — among other duties.
"I've heard whoever gets the baby has to do the dishes, or people put money into a pool and whoever gets the baby wins the pot," says David Haydel, owner of Haydel's Bakery in New Orleans, which produces 60,000 King Cakes each year for Mardi Gras revelers around the world. "Traditionally it's used to select the king and queen of the Mardi Gras krewe." Krewes are clubs that host Mardi Gras balls and parade elaborate floats down New Orleans streets.
If a man finds the prize in the King Cake, he's named king of the krewe's ball and chooses his queen. If a woman finds it, it's lady's choice. Typically, the queen provides the place for the next party, and the king provides the food. This tradition is said to have begun with the 1870 ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers in New Orleans, when one gold and several silver beans were hidden in King Cakes to determine the queen of the ball and her maids-in-waiting.
Over the years, beans have been replaced by gold coins, jewelry and even nuts. Because they were easy to accidentally swallow, beans fell out of favor, and "people would just eat the pecans," explains Haydel, so bakers turned to miniature plastic babies.
In keeping with the holiday, the miniature plastic babies are a symbol for the baby Jesus. The Mardi Gras season kicks off with Epiphany, the commemoration of the night the Three Kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The celebration continues through Fat Tuesday and ends with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast.
Most locals buy ready-made cakes, though the recipe is simply flour, eggs, butter, yeast and milk or water. The dough can be lightly spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and citrus zest, or filled with cream cheese and fruit. Then it's braided into an oval ring to represent a crown and decorated with fondant icing, colored sugar and candies in the Mardi Gras colors: gold for power, green for faith and purple for justice.
Once reserved for Fridays during Mardi Gras, King Cake parties now take place every day during the height of the celebratory period.