Gateau de Roi
Twelfth Night or King Cake
The story of the king cake begins, like the story of Mardi Gras itself, with the pagans. They had a celebration where a young man from the village was chosen to be treated like a king for a whole year. He was not denied during his reign, but after the year was over he became a human sacrifice to the gods. To eliminate this pagan custom, the Christian Church encouraged an observance calling for the preparation of a king cake containing a bean; whoever received the slice with the bean became king for a week and was allowed to choose a queen to reign with him. This took the place of the sacrificial pagan rite.
The King Cake tradition is believed to have been brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, from France in the 1870's. It evolved from the Twelfth Night or Epiphany pastry made by those early settlers. They added their own touches with the Spanish custom of choosing Twelfth Night royalty.
In European countries, the coming of the wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. The celebration, called Epiphany, Little Christmas on the Twelfth Night, is a time of exchanging gifts and feasting. All over the world people gather for festive Twelfth Night celebrations. One of the most popular customs is still the baking of a special cake in honor of the three kings..."A King's Cake" or Gateau de Roi.
A King Cake's ring shape, too, is significant, as some believe it symbolizes the unity of all Christians, and others believe it aptly resembles a king's crown.
A dried bean was originally hidden inside the cake but was replaced by coins, peas, pecans, rubber dolls, porcelain dolls, and in recent years plastic dolls. Starting around the 1930s, a tiny naked baby (Frozen Charlotte) was used instead of the bean or pea. The baby can be pink, brown, or golden. Some people believe that the baby represents the baby Jesus because Twelfth Night was when the three kings found the baby in Bethlehem.
Tradition has it that the person who finds the baby in the king cake is the next queen or king, he or she receives a year of good luck, is treated as royalty for that day and must host the next king cake party.
King Cake season lasts throughout Mardi Gras from the feast of the Epiphany until Mardi Gras Day.
The royal colors of purple, green and gold on the cake honors the three kings, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who visited the Christ child on the Epiphany. Purple represents Justice. Green stands for Faith. Gold signifies Power.
The three colors appeared in 1872 on a Krewe of Rex carnival flag especially designed for the visiting Grand Duke of Russia. He came to New Orleans just for the carnival, and the universal colors remain his legacy.
You can visit Mr. Lake's New Orlean's Forum for more outstanding King Cake recipes (including a Mexican King Cake). Thanks Frank!
Special Note: I couldn't help but notice that the first of the Three Kings was named "Gaspar". Seems as though someone may have forgotten to add the letter "d" at the end of his name.
Ahheee!! Laisser le bon temps rouller!