The air is thick with the smell of sweet bread and cinnamon. Around me bakers, hands sticky with dough, slide pans of twisted pastry wreaths into large ovens. Next door, I watch as the cooled cakes are lined up on counters, where a small army of decorators inject them with fragrant fillings, slather them with icing, and sprinkle them with color-drenched sugars. George Lewis’s “Burgundy Street Blues” plays over the speakers. It’s early February, and I’m in the baking facility of Brennan’s, New Orleans’s iconic restaurant group, as king cake season switches into high gear.
King cake—a sweet, yeast-risen bread that’s become a symbol of Mardi Gras—is big business in New Orleans. While it has been a party-table fixture for hundreds of years, its popularity exploded in the late 19th century, alongside the celebration of Mardi Gras itself. Today, bakeries around the city churn out upwards of 750,000 king cakes annually, reaping more than $15 million.
In 2021, Brennan’s introduced its first-ever king cakes, in traditional, chocolate, and strawberry cream cheese flavors. Just a year later, the restaurant is baking nearly 600 cakes per day, delivering a taste of New Orleans—and a bit of European history—to the contiguous 48 states.
Humble pastry, holy origins
King cake dates back to early Christian Europe—no one is exactly sure when it appeared on the scene, but best guesses put it between the third and fourth centuries. Now, nearly every country with a significant Catholic population has its own version of the pastry, and the name typically includes the word “king,” in reference to the revelation of Jesus as the son of God during Epiphany. The cake has traditionally been used as the sweet capper to the holiday feast.
Throughout the centuries, the common link between king cakes has been the fève, a baked-in trinket. The original was a bean (fève is French for “fava bean”), but coins, nuts, and miniature figurines were also used. The partygoer who discovered the fève was crowned “king” or “queen” for the day and, in some traditions, had to supply the cake for the following year’s festivities.
Perhaps the best-known version of king cake is the French galette de rois, made with puff pastry and stuffed with an almond frangipane. Because puff pastry-making was nearly impossible in warmer climates, another type of cake evolved. In Spanish-speaking countries, it’s called roscon de reyes. Made of a yeast-risen dough often accented with orange blossom water, it’s similar to a sweet brioche and usually decorated with candied fruits.
Spanish and French colonizers of the American South brought king cake to New Orleans, possibly as early as the 1700s. As the French celebration of Carnaval morphed into Mardi Gras, the cake became a staple of the festival. Given the city’s warm, humid climate, roscon-style cake prevailed. Today, the most common version in New Orleans is made from a yeast-risen dough, decorated with icing and splashy Mardi Gras hues: green, gold, and purple. Instead of being served solely on Epiphany, it’s available from January 1 through Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent.
New Orleans takes the cake
As Mardi Gras festivities expanded, king cake became more popular and began to take on slightly different personalities. In the 1940s, the king-cake craze took off. Much of the credit goes to the now-defunct McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe, says Liz Williams, founder of New Orleans’s Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It was the first to distinguish its king cakes through such signature dough flavors as cinnamon and praline and later was joined by other well-known bakeries, including Haydel’s, Gambino’s (available on Goldbelly), and Manny Randazzo, all of which remain in business today.
When the novelty of flavoring wore off in the 1950s, New Orleans bakeries turned their attention toward unique fèves. McKenzie’s was the first to substitute beans with frozen Charlottes: tiny, stiff-limbed bisque dolls ceramicists used to test for hot spots in wood-fired kilns. (Their ominous moniker derives from a folk ballad about a vain beauty who suffered dire consequences for refusing to wrap herself in blankets during a sleigh ride.) When gas-fired kilns eliminated the need for frozen Charlottes, McKenzie’s purchased thousands of the porcelain dolls.
The figurines were eventually supplanted by slightly less creepy bisque baby dolls. As the supply ran dry in the late 1960s, these were replaced with plastic babies; they were not, as is often thought, meant to represent the Christ child. The baby is still the most popular fève, but because it’s considered a choking hazard, many bakeries place it on top instead of inside the cake.
As the 1960s kindled the country’s love affair with processed foods, king cakes followed suit. Mass-produced, plastic-packaged versions became ubiquitous in grocery and convenience stores around the city within a couple of decades. They still crowd store shelves today, along with a range of king cake–flavored products, such as coffee, ice cream, and even vodka.
The confection remained mostly unchanged for several decades, until the early 2000s. Bakeries began stuffing the pastry with rich cream cheese, buttercream, and other fillings. Even fèves got a makeover. Haydel’s Bakery hired the late ceramics artist Alberta Grun Retif Meitin Lewis to create a series of fanciful fèves—from King Kong to a post-Katrina FEMA trailer—that became instant collectibles.
The king’s new guard
Over the past few years, the king cake evolved once more—and Brennan’s has joined the movement.
As a baker brushes past, wheeling a rack of redolent cakes into the cooling room, I ask why Brennan’s, an icon on the New Orleans restaurant scene, has only now entered the king cake business. Patrick Brennan, associate director of operations for Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group (RBRG), tells me that while he always wanted to have a king cake program, the Mardi Gras season was usually too chaotic to add new items. As the pandemic slowed restaurant traffic, Brennan’s was able to shift some of its staff over to making king cakes.
In 2021, they began crafting their cakes using a three-day process that begins with tangzhong. The dough technique originated in Japan in the 1800s and was popularized in the United States by Taiwanese cookbook author Yvonne Chen. A bit of flour and milk are cooked into a slurry, then mixed with dry ingredients.
“It galvanizes the dough to keep it fresh,” says RBRG bakery manager Drew Pope. He slices into a finished cake, revealing a perfectly pillowy interior, which retains its moisture and fresh taste longer than mass-produced cakes.
But that wasn’t the only change they made. Brennan gestures, with palms tinted magenta from hand-mixing colored sugar, toward a counter full of cakes. “These days people expect creative flavors,” he says.
In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the restaurant group is offering three flavors. For purists, there’s Three Kings, a traditional cinnamon-roll cake. For the sweets-curious, there’s Pink Parade, a princessy confection filled with house-made strawberry preserves mixed with cream cheese and topped with iridescent, edible glitter.
The newest flavor, Bananas Foster, is an homage to Brennan’s famous rum-flambéed dessert. After a summerlong R&D process and about 40 iterations, they landed on the ideal balance: a cake filled with velvety Russian buttercream and banana extract, to capture the essence of ice cream, and drizzled with rum-tinged brown sugar icing.
I taste each cake in turn. As the daughter and granddaughter of chefs, I’ve been raised to sample with abandon, no matter how odd the combination or fanciful the flavor. Although the Pink Parade and Bananas Foster are both delicious, I surprise myself in going for seconds on the Three Kings.
Today, bakeries around the city churn out upwards of 750,000 king cakes annually, reaping more than $15 million.
While Brennan’s has the skill and facilities to create quality king cakes at scale, a new coterie of cottage bakers, many of whom began as pop-ups during the pandemic, is leading the movement toward hand-crafted cakes with unique flavors or tailored to specialty diets.
Kaitlin Guerin of Lagniappe Baking is one such baker.
Although Guerin, who grew up in New Orleans, has fond memories of the pastry of her youth, “80 percent of king cakes are too sweet,” she says. “I wanted to make one from sourdough.” The result is a pull-apart cluster—along the lines of the German-Swiss Dreikönigskuchen—of mildly sweet rolls with a savory twist. This year’s flavors include candied grapefruit and chocolate, and pecan praline with rosemary.
Other cottage bakers include Kathryn Conyers and Carla Briggs of Viola’s Heritage Breads, who make a sweet potato and cinnamon cake. Bronwen Wyatt of Bayou Saint Cake crafts several flavors, including walnut frangipane topped with apple cider vinegar glaze and ruffles of cream cheese frosting; hers also include fèves that look like tiny paintings. While a little larger than a cottage operation, students at the Cake Café, run by the Culinary Arts department at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, bake a cinnamon-flavored, bundt-style, gluten-free cake.
Guerin believes there’s a place for all kinds of king cakes, from the conventional to the out-there. “I think king cake is celebratory in its essence, as all food is here in New Orleans,” she says. “It’s about taking the time to enjoy, and keeping traditions alive.”
Four more places to eat king cake in New Orleans
In addition to Brennan’s, which ships nationwide, a variety of makers create the best of New Orleans king cake. These include Levee Baking Co., tucked among the chic boutiques of Magazine Street. Gracious Bakery, a half mile away in the scenic Garden District, and Celtica Bakery, in the Lakeview neighborhood, both make a traditional galette de rois. (Gracious Bakery ships its cake kits nationwide.)
About 20 minutes outside the downtown, beyond a string of Vietnamese-owned hotels, shops, and a shrine, lies unassuming Dong Phuong Bakery. Its rich, buttery brioche cake, topped with a thick layer of icing, is a city favorite and considered heir to McKenzie’s.
For those who can’t choose just one, the King Cake Hub, on Broad Street, is celebrating its fourth year of bringing cake to the masses. On any given day, shoppers can find 120 options, including vegan and gluten-free, from 15 bakeries.