King cake

Why would an adult wear a cardboard cutout crown on his head in the office? That might be a better question. Sure, the Weekly’s luxurious, I.M. Pei-designed editorial suite deserves a touch of royalty—but a printout of a coronet decorated with golden fleur de lis?

If you’ve already started to answer “because he has serious problems” or “because he’s had too much to drink”—probably a bit right, in both cases—keep in mind that for many Christians, Monday marks the day the wise men finally tracked down Jesus’ crib in the family’s short-term rental manger. And centuries ago, Europeans began celebrating the encounter by stuffing a bean inside a cake, then having a child hide under the table and call out names. Each person takes a slice in this order.

Get the bean, buy the next cake—or something like that. Yeah, makes sense.

But Elena Salsedo of Sweet Elena’s Artisan Bakery & Cafe in Sand City insists it does make sense. “It’s really great for the kids,” she points out. “It’s a tradition in France.”

What she’s talking about (and why donning a cardboard tiara is such an honor) is the king cake, or galette des rois in France—where they eat some 40 million king cakes each winter. For the rest of the month, the crew at Sweet Elena’s will be baking traditional French-style king cakes, as well as the version made famous in New Orleans.

What’s the diff? Well, the common New Orleans cake is yeasty bread, colorfully decorated. The one most often served in northern France, on the other hand, is really, really good.

How could it not be: lightly sweet and airy puff pastry over a rich frangipane—essentially almond paste, butter and sugar, but Salsedo splashes a little amaretto into the mix. Smooth and rich, with a mellowness that may cause one to swoon, it’s an epiphany all its own.

Yes, but I couldn’t resist.

Salsedo adds slices of pear for a gentle hedge against the opulent cream, a break from the classic galette de Pithiviers style that she says is allowed—”now.”

“When I was in Nice they had apple,” she adds. “But the traditional is just almond cream.”

Writing in Southern Living, Michelle Darrisaw describes the typical N’awlins cake as “a rich, brioche dough and a wide array of fillings, such as cinnamon, chocolate and cream cheese.” She left out fruit, but no matter. This is covered in a snowfall of rainbow-hued sprinkles and icing associated with the colors of Mardi Gras.

So why are the two so different? That has something to do with tradition, as well.

In the south of France and parts of Spain, gateau des rois is the more proper king cake, and this is a shaped brioche studded and filled with candied fruits. ("Sometimes they are not that great," Salsedo warns). Both versions (and there are others—the cake was never unique to France) made their way to the New World.

King cake scholars note that several forms of the treat arrived in The Big Easy. Maybe because it was easier to drape brioche in Mardi Gras colors (reportedly determined by Krewe of Rex in 1872 as purple, green and gold) that made it more popular. 

According to Scientific American’s Layla Eplett, the first mention of gateau de rois—the style favored at Sweet Elena’s—came in the 1300s. Yet these same cake scholars point out that the tradition of placing a bean in a cake and celebrating likely began in the Roman Empire or earlier. “During the Saturnalia, the ‘king of the day’ was chosen by lot, using a bean concealed in a galette. It was only in the Middle Ages that this cake ceremony began to be associated with the festival of Epiphany,” or so states the authoritative Larousse Gastronomique.

Which sounds about right. King cakes were a fun ancient party, usurped by Christians in their zeal to obliterate other beliefs, perfected by the French, turned into a pedestrian party bread by Americans and taken over by those who collect the trinkets inside (which are no longer beans, but can be just about anything—including plastic baby figurines).

That will have to do as an answer, since this particular king for a day sees the clock ticking toward 5pm and decrees that it’s time for another...I mean…a—yeah, that’s it—a drink.

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