Throughout the entire Carnival season in New Orleans, they make “King Cake”, which is a sort of brioche.
The cake was originally made just for Twelfth Night, signalling the end of Christmas season. Now Twelfth Night is seen as the start of Carnival Season, and the cake is now made and sold throughout Carnival until the end of Carnival on Shrove Tuesday.
It is made of brioche dough, rolled into a ring, and drizzled with thin white icing. Patches of green, gold (actually more yellow) and purple sugars are sprinkled on top the icing. Green, gold and purple (actually violet), are the colours used by the Catholic Church during Lent in clothing for the clergy, and in draperies and covers. Most people are unaware of any religious symbolism, so it has become a secular cake, and these colours have become the official Mardi Gras colours.
The definition of what a King Cake is has changed as it came to be made by large commercial bakeries for sale in supermarkets, etc. As a plain bread cake, it was really just a container for the prizes inside. Because the cake is basically a bread, many people criticize it as actually being dry and uninteresting, and needing a gallon of coffee to wash it down. Consequently, some bakeries have switched from a brioche-type dough to a cinnamon-roll or Danish dough trying to make it moister and sweeter. As more people have it, more often, the expectation is that it should be more like the modern definition of a cake. King Cakes with a filling in them, to help get around the dryness problem, started appearing by 1987. The filling is usually a plain cream cheese filling, but you can get flavoured cream cheese (anything from Amaretto to bourbon to chocolate or pecan), and cream cheese filling combined with a fruit filling, such as apple, blueberry or strawberry.
There will be a small plastic baby doll toy in them (in the past, it might have been instead a gold bean or a pea, but now people expect the doll.) The King is always preselected; the pieces are given to women, with whomever gets the bean or toy-surprise becoming the Queen. The tradition now is that whoever gets the doll has to buy next week’s cake.
Owing to liability concerns of someone choking on the plastic baby in the cake, some bakers are now leaving the baby out, but putting it in the bag or box with the cake, with customers needing to put it in themselves.
Some bakeries make a King Cake with chocolate dough, though this has been dubbed a “Zulu Cake.”
Mini, personal-sized ones are also being made now, the size of a cinnamon roll. Doughnut shops in the area are also making doughnuts with the three colours of sugar sprinkled on top.
Many of the Carnival activities are actually only open to members of clubs and associations, but the ritual of having a King Cake is something that everyone can take part in.
Commercialization and big sales of King Cake really only started in the late 1980s. One bakery in Baton Rouge, Kleinpeter’s Bakery, saw its sales of King Cakes go from a total of 6 in 1972 to around 10,000 in 1990. By 1993, King Cake was a hot selling item sold everywhere. The cakes are often ordered and sent as business gifts. They are easy to ship, so a great number are now even shipped outside the state as gifts: in 1990, approximately 300,000 cakes were shipped out of state. The cakes are often sold now as part of a party pack, that includes Mardi Gras beads, paper or plastic crowns, etc.
Ryland, Janet. From Custom to Coffee Cake: The Commodification of the Louisiana King Cake. In Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Louisiana Folklore Society: Lafayette, Louisiana. 1994.