Fat Tuesday in New Orleans brings a huge demand to bakers for King Cakes

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It’s Carnival season in New Orleans and that means long lines outside local bakeries and the pace inside is fast as employees try to meet customer demand for king cakes – those colorful seasonal pastries that have been popular over the years.

“Mardi Gras is our busiest time of year,” said David Haydel Jr. of Haydel’s Bakery, who estimates king cake sales in the short few weeks between Christmas and Lent make up about half of the bakery’s income.

Behind him are racks containing dozens of freshly baked cakes ready for wrapping. Nearby, workers are whipping up batter in large mixers, rolling out pieces of dough, pressing and shaping them into rings and popping them into ovens.

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It’s a similar scene at Adrian’s Bakery in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood, where Adrian Darby Sr. believes that king cakes make up 40% of his business. “Without Mardi Gras, you know, you have to make cuts, and you don’t want to do that. You have full-time employees and you want to keep that.”

Food historian Liz Williams says the roots of the king cake culture go back to the Saturnalia celebrations in ancient Rome, when a cake was baked by a woman inside and whoever got the slice with it the bean is considered king for a day.

Over the centuries the traditions developed and were adapted to the European pre-Lenten festivals that became the Mardi Gras traditions of today.

Lawren DiBella decorates king cakes

Lawren DiBella decorates king cakes in preparation for Mardi Gras at Haydel’s Bakery in Jefferson Parish, La., on Jan. 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The evolution did not stop, according to Williams. King cakes in New Orleans were once uniform and simple – a ring of light brioche braided with purple, green and gold sugar. Instead of beans, tiny dolls – first made of china, now plastic – were baked inside.

“There wasn’t a real change from one bakery to another,” Williams said. But by the 1970s, changes were happening. Some bakers started using Danish-style clay dough. Some started the king cakes. have them filled with cream cheese or fruit preserves.

The theme grew in popularity from one Mardi Gras season to the next amid the usual frenzy of parades and colorful floats, fancy dress and partying in the streets. Years ago, Williams said that king cake was likely eaten several times a year, perhaps at a king cake party during Carnival.

Now, Williams said, Mardi Gras season means king cake consumption almost every day for some. “People pick up a king cake and take it to work, and whoever gets the baby has to bring one the next day, so people eat it all the time.”

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Nevertheless, it is not a year-round affair. Tradition holds that king cake is not to be eaten before the start of the Carnival season on January 6 or after Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – which falls this year on February 13.

The King’s cake was a hit one recent morning at Manny Randazzo’s bakery in New Orleans, where a line of more than 60 people stretched down the street. Customer Adrienne Leblanc packed the back of an SUV with king cakes for friends and family in New Orleans and beyond.

“Some of those are going to go to Houston, some are going to Mississippi,” LeBlanc said. “And some are going to stay here in New Orleans.”

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