Originally published Feb. 9, 2016; updated Feb. 23, 2020 (with instructions for hiding the “baby”)
By Patricia Hall, FairfaxFamilyFun.com
Today I am meeting a group of people, and just for fun, I will be bringing this:
They don’t know I am bringing it, so hopefully it will be a nice surprise. But more than that, hopefully they will know what it is! Do YOU recognize it? If you said “King Cake,” you’re right, and to you, I say “Happy Mardi Gras!”
Each Tuesday before Lent is Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras), the last day before the lenten period leading up to Easter. Lent is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting, and many who observe the season make sacrifices such as “giving up” certain foods or activities during this time. For many people, the last day before Lent is a time to celebrate, and it wraps up the Mardi Gras season.
The Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday) holiday itself, of course, usually brings up images of parades and debauchery in places such as New Orleans. But there are some simpler and more “tame” traditions, too, and one of these — which you can enjoy right in your home — is the serving of the King Cake. This traditional treat is made from a sweet brioche dough, formed in the shape of a circle or “crown,” and topped with a glaze with colored sugar on top. The sugar and decorations are in purple, green, and gold, the colors of Mardi Gras which represent justice, faith, and power, respectively.
These cakes often have a small plastic baby hidden inside (said to represent Baby Jesus), and tradition has it that the person who finds it in his or her cake has certain honors and duties — for example, being the “King” of this year’s Mardi Gras, but also having to buy the cake next year. Sometimes the cakes also come with purple, green, and gold Mardi Gras beads on top.
King Cake is a yummy treat (think of a sweet and colorful coffee cake) and the tradition of finding the hidden trinket is a fun and easy one to adopt. You can buy a King Cake at a bakery or at a supermarket but be warned: because of concerns about choking hazards — especially for those who have no idea what a King Cake is — some of the mass-produced cakes from the supermarkets (such as the one I bought, pictured above) don’t even have the baby figure in them anymore. This is likely from worries about a choking hazard, especially for people unfamiliar with king cake (the “baby” seems to be getting bigger each year, too!).
But you can always cut a small slit somewhere in the bottom of the cake to insert the little plastic baby yourself. If you want your family or guests to enjoy the “hunt,” then, you can hide the baby (or, if your cake didn’t come with one, a little trinket of your own) before serving it. Just remember to tell your guests what to look for! (More often than not, I have had to explain to others what a King Cake is.)
Happy Mardi Gras, and laissez les bon temps rouler!