Now through the beginning of Lent, there’s almost no escaping that familiar cake ring decorated in purple, green and gold icing or sugar — especially the closer you get to New Orleans , the city that has turned King Cake into an industry. Available from Three Kings Day (Epiphany), Jan. 6, through Shrove Tuesday, March 5, it’s one of the most recognizable signs of Mardi Gras season.
Especially today, as King Cake flavor has grown beyond its doughy origins, finding its way into a variety of food and beverage products in local grocery stores and beyond.
Take Blue Bell’s limited-edition Mardi Gras King Cake ice cream. Originally sold only in Louisiana and Alabama, the King Cake flavor — cinnamon cake ice cream with a cream cheese swirl, pastry pieces and candy sprinkles — proved so popular the Brenham-based company expanded its availability to all states that carry Blue Bell.
Meanwhile, Louisiana-based Community Coffee offers Mardi Gras King Cake coffee flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. There are regional versions of King Cake beer, King Cake vodka and King Cake soda. The flavor can be found in milkshakes, smoothies, croissants, cookies, pancakes, monkey bread and doughnuts, too.
King Cake fans can find more outrageous applications in Big Easy proper: boudin King Cake, crawfish King Cake and Tabasco King Cake. Just about anything goes, and it even stretches beyond Carnival season. New Orleanians now embrace Easter, Christmas and even football-themed Saints versions.
Interestingly, though King Cake itself is practically ancient — French- and Spanish-speaking cultures have their own respective King Cakes, Galette des Rois and Rosca de Reyes — the prevailing “flavor” of traditional Louisiana King Cake as we know it is not.
In the 1950s, ’60s and even as recently as the early ’70s, there was no cinnamon in the King Cakes found in New Orleans, Williams said. King Cakes were simply a ring of brioche-type dough, whose flavor came from butter and egg yolks, sprinkled with colored granulated sugar. “It was a simple, slightly sweet cake,” Maloney said.
But by the 1980s, as supermarket- and bakery-produced cakes of convenience trumped homemade cake, King Cake took on a more commercial flavor. Cinnamon-roll-flavored King Cakes started to become widely favored in New Orleans, according to Maloney. And vanilla was added to balance the cinnamon, Williams said.