It is just a basic confection – sugar, butter, flour, yeast, flavorings – but it packs a symbolic punch for anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans. King Cakes, ubiquitous in local classrooms, offices and kitchens during the Carnival season, have become a welcome visitor in many other places, thanks to the bakeries that ship them all over the world.
Randy Petry, president of Gambino’s Bakery, has seen the King Cake morph from a simple brioche to a dessert with dozens of flavors and fillings. He has also seen the competition to sell the cakes grow.

“Every nook and cranny makes King Cakes now,” he says. But few make as many as Gambino’s, which can ship 4,000 cakes a day during Carnival. Petry says his King Cake business has grown significantly in the past 30 years.

Last year, shipping was “way, way up,” he says, and he’s hoping this year will be just as good. Like other bakeries, Gambino’s ships King Cake packages with themed goodies. Its King Rex Mardi Gras King Cake Package, for example, includes beads, doubloons, a brochure on the history of Mardi Gras, a poster and a gold baby.

Gambino’s has made King Cakes since the bakery opened in 1949. Its most popular version – both in store and shipped – is the traditional King Cake. Another popular item, especially this year, is the Saints King Cake.

4821 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 885-7500; 300 Lapalco Blvd.,  Kenner, 391-0600;

Haydel’s Bakery features King Cakes with 10 different fillings, four of which are available for shipping. The traditional package includes Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, a package of coffee and chicory, beads, doubloons and a figurine.

The bakery also ships a package of 12 mini-King Cakes (7 inches in diameter), for those who want to pass them out to office mates. Manager David Haydel says his bakery was the first to ship King Cakes out of town. He has seen the shipping end of the business grow post-Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleanians who settled in other regions long for a taste of home. Another hurricane – Hurricane Betsy – played a pivotal role in the history of the bakery, which began as a 24-hour doughnut shop but rebuilt as a full bakery after Betsy went through in 1965.

The majority order the New Orleans-style King Cake, Haydel says. That is also the most popular version the bakery sells over the counter, although the fillings have grown in popularity.

Last year Haydel’s introduced “Da Parish,” a King Cake homage to St. Bernard. The colored sugar is sprinkled on this version before the cake is baked, so it crystallizes. Haydel says the cake was popular and will be offered again this year. In the 1980s, Haydel’s marketed a King Cake mix for home bakers. It didn’t really catch on, as most people figured it was more trouble than it was worth.

4037 Jefferson Highway, 837-0190;

At La Boulangerie, owner Dominique Rizzo features the French-style King Cake, “Galette des Rois,” with flaky puff pastry, an almond filling called frangipane and simple syrup drizzled on top. The shop also sells the New Orleans-style cakes, with icing and colored sugar on top. Both versions come with the traditional babies baked inside.

The bakery only makes King Cakes during the Carnival season and will begin shipping them this year.

4600 Magazine St., 269-3777

Maurice French Pastry also makes French King Cakes, as well as New Orleans-style cakes, sugar-free cakes and a new item: Obama King Cake. Owner Jean-Luc Albin said he wanted to do something special when Barack Obama was elected, so he devised a King Cake made of sweet brioche bread; chocolate icing; red, white and blue sprinkles; a little flag on top and two babies inside (one black and one white). The filling is both chocolate and cream cheese.

Albin says he’s used to accommodating all kinds of requests from customers, including placing 12 babies baked in one cake. “I never say no, [not] yet,” he says. The bakery features traditional fillings, such as cream cheese or blueberry, but also more elaborate concoctions like praline and brandy, cinnamon and apple, or chocolate bourbon pecan.

King Cake orders pour in from all over the country, Albin says. Business is especially brisk in Florida, New York and along the West Coast.

3501 Hessmer Ave., Metairie, 885-1526;

Mention Swiss Confectionery and hundreds of New Orleanians think “wedding cake.” But Swiss does an active King Cake business, too, although the bakery doesn’t ship the cakes. Owner Laurent Moecklin says his father and his grandfather  made King Cakes, and he makes them, too – about 40 a day.

The King Cakes people like nowadays are moister and more cinnamon-flavored than their predecessors, Moecklin says, and usually have fondant icing on them.

King Cakes have been a bakery purchase for generations, Moecklin says. Because New Orleans has always had so many places to buy them, home bakers never really took up the challenge.

747 St. Charles Ave., 522-7788

North Shore residents have come to depend on Mandeville Bake Shop for King Cakes. The popular bakery attracts customers from both sides of the lake, and ships its King Cakes overnight all over the U.S. Manager Anne Dore says the filled cakes are the most popular: fillings include blueberry, raspberry, lemon, strawberry and cream cheese.

Mandeville Bakery also sells plain cakes with no icing.

Dore says she hasn’t seen any downturn in King Cake sales since Katrina; people want King Cakes no matter what.

2203 Florida St., (985) 626-1952; 3847 Highway 22, Mandeville,  (985) 624-8989