Even the most ingrained and apparently immovable New Orleans culinary rubrics possess a core integrity that can survive innovation and change. I have enjoyed a mushroom gumbo, for example, as well as vegan mayonnaise on a poor boy and red beans on a Friday. But since first learning the rules of Carnival 16 years ago, I have never – and, Rex willing, will never – eaten a King Cake out of season. All New Orleanians know that Carnival, and thus King Cake season, begins on Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) and ends when the clock ticks from Fat Tuesday over to Ash Wednesday. Whether they abide is another matter. Plenty of local bakeries will enable an out-of-season King Cake habit. I do abide, out of respect for tradition and insulin levels. I am a sucker for another unofficial King Cake custom: the stickier-sweet the better.
Which adds to the irony that, before a bite of King Cake could pass my lips, I had a mildly emergency dental procedure on the morning of Twelfth Night last year. Leaving her office, I wished my dentist a Happy Carnival. She replied by asking me about my favorite King Cake. (My dentist asked me about King Cake!) I told her that my tastes run O’Delice; she divulged that she’s partial to Randazzo’s. We agreed on eating them only during Carnival, and not just to avoid cavities.
Compromised tooth notwithstanding, I reveled in the holiday as usual. A friend who believes in Carnival more than Christmas left a thickly iced Manny Randazzo King Cake on the front porch while I was out, just because. Another friend stopped by later in the day with an elegant, still-warm cream cheese King Cake from La Boulangerie, where bakers make two styles: traditional New Orleans King Cakes with brioche-like dough and French galettes des rois with puff pastry. That night, I attended a Twelfth Night party hosted by friends who served rum punch garnished with plastic King Cake babies and welcomed guests to bring King Cakes to share. The galette des rois from Rivista that I pre-cut into triangles never even made it to the King Cake buffet table – revelers snatched pieces as I walked through the party as if I were carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
I must have sampled a dozen King Cakes that night, including a braided, custard-filled, glazed titan of a cake from Meche’s Donut King in Lafayette. (It is worth the drive, and they ship.) One hangdog guest left the party early, claiming King Cake overdose. Another who overindulged publicly broke up with King Cakes on Facebook that night.
Encouraged by this assignment, my own King Cake appetite didn’t abate for the duration of Carnival. It never does. The rest of my family played along: my dad didn’t complain when I asked him to drive the two-hour round-trip through frenzied traffic on Lundi Gras to fetch a last-minute King Cake from Coffee &… in Harvey; I caught my son eating icing shards from the floor at a parade party (and didn’t scold him); and, though the poor kid begged for a Death Star, my husband turned our Radio Flyer wagon into a papier-mâché King Cake float complete with Carnival-colored glitter and a life-size plastic baby.
The following recommendations are the upshot of near-daily King Cake tastings during Carnival 2015. May they help sweeten this year’s holiday season.
Prices reflect the cost of commodities – including gold leaf – at press time.
Sara Roahen is a freelance writer and oral historian. She authored the book Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table and co-edited The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.
Haydel’s Bakery’s Cream Cheese
“During Carnival season you have a good shot of getting a King Cake braided by a Haydel family member.”
– Meredith Timberlake, Director of Brand Development
Haydel’s Bakery’s Cream Cheese
Super moist, paved with a thick coating of white icing and sporting the tie-dyed look of purple, green and gold sugars that have succumbed to humidity, Haydel’s King Cake has always embodied the essence of Carnival’s garish beauty for me. I prefer mine further gilded with cream cheese filling. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, filled (cherry, apple, lemon, blueberry, Bavarian cream, cream cheese, strawberry cream cheese, German chocolate, praline pecan or chocolate chip brownie) and a variety of themed shapes Shipping: Yes; and Haydel’s ships to military personnel stationed oversees, packing icing and sugar separately to elongate the King Cake’s shelf life Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $14.50-$60 4037 Jefferson Highway , Pop-up locations during Carnival season at Chilly’s Sno-Balls (3940 Veterans Blvd., Metairie), SnoWizard (4001 Magazine St.), and The Ridgeway (2431 Metairie Road, Metairie), (800) 442-1342, HaydelBakery.com
O’Delice French Bakery’s Cream Cheese
“There’s no King Cake tradition in Vietnamese culture. I learned to make them while working at a New Orleans hotel.”
– Nancy Nguyen, owner and pastry chef
O’Delice French Bakery’s Cream Cheese
A thick ribbon of reddish, cinnamon-spiced pastry “filling” runs through all of Nancy Nguyen’s fresh, buttery King Cakes, whether traditional or cream cheese. It is a quiet innovation but one that sells – she often runs out by the end of the day. Her pastry itself isn’t terribly sweet, but she piles ample quantities of colored sugars on top. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional Shipping available: No When to buy: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $20-$30 6033 Magazine St., 895-2144, ODeliceNola.com
dong phuong's strawberry
“We wanted to provide a less sweet option for the Vietnamese community to enjoy this New Orleans tradition.”
– Linh Garza, President
Dong Phuong’s Strawberry
Light, flaky, spinning layers of dough and a crusty exterior recall a croissant, while a slathering of cream cheese icing and colored sugars confirm that Dong Phuong’s horseshoe-shaped creation is indeed a King Cake. I like the version with fresh strawberry slices hidden inside. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, cream cheese and possible other fruit fillings Shipping: No Availability: During Carnival season only Price range: One size for $14 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, 254-0296, DPBanhMi.com
Gracious Bakery’s Chocolate
At Gracious, making King Cake dough is a two-day process; letting the dough rest for a spell fosters a slight tangy quality that marries deliciously with cinnamon and a generous swirl of dark chocolate filling. Ten seconds in the microwave and it’s perfectly molten. Other varieties: Almond; this year the bakers will experiment with a variable “Chef’s Special” Shipping: Yes Availability: During Carnival season only Price range: One size for $20 1000 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway #100, 7220 Earhart Blvd. (quick-service location), 301-3709, GraciousBakery.com
Sucré’s King Cake
Laminated with butter and further enriched with cream cheese, Sucré’s King Cake has a fat content that benefits from heating. A few seconds in the microwave renders it soft, buttery and deceivingly light. Tariq Hanna and his bakery staff glaze the cakes with just a suggestion of icing and then spray them with subtle, shimmery Carnival colors. Other varieties: None Shipping available: Yes When to buy: During Carnival season only Price range: One size for $20 3025 Magazine St., 520-8311, 3301 Veterans Blvd., 834-2277, 622 Conti St., 267-7098, ShopSucre.com
new orleans cake café's apple and goat cheese
New Orleans Cake Café’s Apple and Goat Cheese
Steve Himelfarb firmly believes that a New Orleans bakery’s calling card is its King Cake. So when he opened the New Orleans Cake Café on a Faubourg Marigny corner, he thought hard about what his bakery’s signature King Cake should be. Eight years later, the unusual outcome – Danish dough filled with fresh apple and goat cheese and drizzled with colored icings – is a Carnival staple. It is also the bakery’s most popular King Cake variety. Other varieties: Traditional, cream cheese, raspberry cream cheese, pecan and boudin Shipping: No Availability: During Carnival season only Price range: $6.50-$26 2440 Chartres St., 943-0010, NolaCakes.com
Antoine’s Queen Cake
According to Greg Antoine’s wife, Kim, growing up with four brothers inspired Antoine to develop his trademarked Queen Cake. A ring of dough embedded with five jewel-like fillings (apple, lemon, pineapple, strawberry and cream cheese), the Queen Cake can meet the cravings of an entire family. Warning: This one almost breaks the sweet meter. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, kringle (topped with caramel icing and pecans) and filled (apple, cherry, lemon, pineapple, strawberry, Bavarian cream or cream cheese) Shipping: Yes Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $17-$50 (The Queen Cake comes in one size, priced around $42) 1300 Stumpf Blvd., Gretna, 368-6222, 3030 Severn Ave., Metairie, 309-8599, AntoinesFamousCakes.com
Tartine’s King Cake
A native New Orleanian first turned me on to Tartine’s King Cake, calling it “traditional,” by which she meant that the dough is more bread than pastry. But that’s where the subtlety stops. The braided ring of brioche was still warm when I picked it up. Royal icing dripped down its sides; brown sugar and cream cheese filling escaped from pockets where the puffed dough had burst during baking. I didn’t make it home before digging in. Other varieties: A larger size is available per special order Shipping available: No When to buy: During Carnival season only Price range: One size for $20 7217 Perrier St., 866-4860, TartineNewOrleans.com
Numerous local products exhibited the King Cake spirit last year without being an actual King Cake. For example, Creole Creamery’s King Cake ice cream, Humble Bagel’s glazed-and-sugared bagels, Sucré’s Carnival-colored macaroons, Rivista’s King Cake lattes, SoBou’s King Cake old fashioned cocktail, a few brands of King Cake vodka and a slew of savory King Cakes.
Do not despair if your favorite King Cake shop won’t ship to your homesick aunt. Most King Cakes fit snugly into a USPS Priority Mail box, and some privately owned mail stores pack them for an extra charge.
Hi-Do Bakery’s Cream Cheese
It took me a few bites to warm to Hi-Do’s eggy, almost savory King Cake dough, the tart quality of its cream cheese filling and its moderately applied icing. But my palate adjusted after a few bites, in time to appreciate Ha Do’s balanced approach to what can be an over-stimulating eating endeavor. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, filled (almond, apple, blueberry, chocolate, lemon, pineapple, strawberry or Bavarian cream) and unique shapes (crawfish, fleur-de-lis, crab or crown) Shipping: No Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $10-$30 441 Terry Parkway, Terrytown, 366-6555
Willa Jean’s Salted Caramel and Banana
“I decided I would buck tradition and design a King Cake that would be fit for the King of Mardi Gras.”
–Lisa White, partner and pastry chef
Willa Jean’s Salted
Caramel and Banana (formerly available at Domenica)
Pushing the Envelope
Lisa White might have moved her base of operations from Domenica to Willa Jean (both are Besh Restaurant Group restaurants), but she can’t shake the weighty cake responsibility she assumed when she began splitting a brioche-dough King Cake horizontally, filling it with salted caramel, sliced bananas, roasted pecans and mascarpone cheese, and then overlaying it with praline glaze and gold leaf. Yes, seriously. Other varieties: None Shipping: No Availability: During Carnival season only Price range: One size for around $55 611 O’Keefe Ave., 509-7334, WillaJean.com
maurice french pasteries' Ponchatoula
“Every year there’s something new happening with King Cake, and I wanted to do something different.”
– Jean-Luc Albin, owner and pastry chef
Maurice French Pastries’s Ponchatoula
Pushing the Envelope
Imagine using a traditional, cinnamon-tinged, frosted-and-sugared King Cake as a base for strawberry shortcake. And when, imagine that, as Jean-Luc Albin does, you not only add whipped cream and fresh strawberries, but also Bavarian cream and sliced almonds. The Ponchatoula King Cake must be eaten with a fork. It is worth the extra effort. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, French galette des rois and specialty filled Shipping: Yes, but not the Ponchatoula or other specialty filled King Cakes Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $15-$99 (The Ponchatoula comes in one size, priced around $38) 3501 Hessmer Ave., Metairie, 885-1526, 4949 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie, 455-0830, MauriceFrenchPastries.com
Rocket Girl’s Organic Vegan and Gluten-Free Cream Cheese
Dianna Egan’s King Cakes are more spice cake than pastry, and she shapes them in oval patties rather than traditional rings. But you won’t catch me complaining. Nor any of the friends and family who passed through my kitchen last Carnival season and devoured this sizable treat more quickly than any other. Other varieties: Cinnamon and seasonal fruit; this year, Egan will debut a caramel and pink Himalayan sea salt version Shipping: No, but local delivery is negotiable Availability: Egan takes orders year-round Price range: One size for around $25 (646) 342-7461
French custom calls for a token to be baked into, or hidden inside, the galette des rois: A bean, a trinket, a charm or a figurine (fève). These days in New Orleans, the token is most often a plastic baby, and for liability reasons bakers usually include the baby outside the King Cake rather than baked or inserted into it. Local custom dictates that whomever finds the baby in her slice must buy the next King Cake. Some bakeries eschew the plastic baby for a customized token. A tiny green elephant charm accompanied the gateau des rois from Rivista. At Gracious Bakery, a cherry is baked into each one. Lisa White includes a gold-sprayed fava bean with her caramel creations and at Cochon Butcher they use plastic pigs. Haydel’s Bakery releases a different ceramic figurine every year. Last year it was a member of the 610 Stompers Mardi Gras krewe, a men’s parading club. Haydel’s 2016 figurine was still top secret at press time.
rouses king cake
“No one sells King Cakes like we sell King Cakes.”
– Chaya Conrad, Bakery Director
Rouse’s King Cake
Rouses bakers produce several hundred thousand King Cakes every Carnival season. With that kind of volume, the regional supermarket chain sets a King Cake standard of sorts with its layered rings of hand-twisted dough schmeared with cinnamon. Bakery Director Chaya Conrad is constantly re-working the formula, often focusing on moistness, which I think is Rouses King Cakes’ greatest virtue. No filling necessary. Other varieties: Too many to list, including unusual fillings such as Heavenly Hash and pina colada Shipping: Yes Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $5.50-$20 Numerous locations, Shop.Rouses.com
Fare’s King Cake
Like everything sold at Fare, the King Cakes are anti-inflammatory and Paleo-diet-friendly. They contain no gluten, grains or dairy. This isn’t exactly a pastry. But before you pshaw, consider that dates, nuts and cinnamon create a King Cake-like atmosphere of taste. And plenty of traditional King Cakes would benefit from Fare’s rich cashew cream icing. Instead of artificially colored sugars, Fare’s King Cakes sport coconut flakes colored with dried berries (purple), kale juice (green) and turmeric (gold). Other varieties: None Shipping: No Availability: Year-round by special order; daily during Carnival season Price range: $6.50 and $35 4838 Magazine St., 302-9171, FareFood.com
Rivista’s Galette des Rois
“The French galette is my favorite version to make and eat. It blows me away that you can just put butter, sugar and flour together and make something so beautiful.”
– Lisa Barbato, owner and pastry chef
Rivista’s Galette des Rois
When you call to reserve a Rivista King Cake, the order-taker asks for a pickup time. Play along and your galette des rois will still be oven-warm and crisp-topped when you get there. Lisa Barbato and her bakers make their own puff pastry and almond cream filling, and the world is a better place for it. Other varieties: New Orleans traditional, Mexican and Spanish Shipping available: No When to buy: During Carnival season only Price range: $4 and $20 4226 Magazine St., 371-5558