When Dominick Lee was in elementary school in the 1990s, every year for Twelfth Night, the teacher would bring a king cake for the class to share. He and his classmates would wait for their slices -- decorated with purple, gold and green sugars -- eager to see which piece had a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever found it was responsible for bringing another king cake to school the next week, and the cycle would continue through Carnival season, right up until Mardi Gras.
"It was a really wonderful childhood memory, and it's stuck with me to this day," says Lee, a chef born and raised in New Orleans.
Nearly every New Orleanian has a similar story. King cake is a treasured sweet and a beloved Carnival tradition.
And in New Orleans, where Catholicism is still the predominant religion, Twelfth Night, celebrated on Jan. 6, holds deep significance. The date -- also known around the world as Epiphany or Three Kings Day -- marks the moment when the three Magi, or kings, reached the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Celebrations vary, but in New Orleans, Twelfth Night is also the start of the pre-Lenten Carnival season, a cycle of baking and eating king cakes, with the arrival of many plastic babies.
Poppy Tooker, an author in New Orleans, says king cake dates back to ancient Rome and the Saturnalia Festival, a celebration of the god Saturn.
"The tradition goes, they bake the bean into the cake, which really makes it sound like a king cake," Tooker says. "When Rome collapsed, like so much in the Catholic Church in Europe, they took these pagan customs and adapted them."
King cakes are revered in New Orleans, so much so that it's considered sacrilegious to eat one before Jan. 6. Until the 18th century, king cake was largely eaten only on that day, to signal the end of the Christmas season. In the early 1900s however, some Carnival krewes (as parade organizers are known) like the Twelfth Night Revelers began to host balls, where they served king cake, selecting the "king" or "queen" based on which guest found the small trinket, or fève, hidden in the cake.
The New Orleans version of the cake, which Tooker says was most likely developed by 18th-century French and Spanish colonists, initially followed a basic structure: The oval-shaped pastries consisted of a brioche dough with hints of vanilla, and were covered with colorful sugary crystals and stuffed with the fève, initially a bean. In the 19th century, porcelain dolls were the fève of choice; in the 20th century, McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, a local chain that closed in 2001, became among the first commercial bakeries to use a plastic baby, and others soon followed. Cakes also became sweeter and more Danish-like as king cakes became commercially popular.
"It is the emblematic dessert of the time," food historian Lolis Eric Elie says.
Today, the pastry has taken on a life of its own in New Orleans. Gambino's serves a Bavarian cream king cake and a praline-and-cream-cheese king cake, among other varieties. Bywater Bakery has experimented with savory flavors, offering cakes stuffed with boudin, crawfish or spinach-and-artichoke dip. Haydel's Bakery's classic version is a popular favorite. And several bakeries, like La Boulangerie and Croissant D'or, serve galettes des rois.
"King cake season is this really communal experience that I think defines Mardi Gras New Orleans in general," says Matt Haines, the author of "The Big Book of King Cake," an archive of some of the city's tastiest cakes.
Dong Phuong Bakery, in New Orleans East, has embraced this idea. The Vietnamese bakery first started making the pastry in 2008, selling about 100 cakes for the entire season. Now, it averages about 50,000.
"We wanted to create an offering to the community," says Linh Garza, the bakery's president. "But we wanted to adapt it to our community, and our tastes."
Garza's family opened the bakery in 1982 after immigrating as refugees to New Orleans. Dong Phuong became a culinary respite for the area's Vietnamese community. And Garza's mother, Huong Tran, eventually became the mastermind behind the bakery's king cake. The recipe opts for cream cheese icing and uses a flaky brioche dough, offering more moisture than other versions, and a remarkably fluffy bite. Tran, who previously worked as a seamstress, added deep slashes to her cakes.
José Castillo was 5 years old when his family arrived in New Orleans from Villanueva, Honduras, in 1981. After seeing the Three Kings Day tradition at school, he came home and begged his mother, Norma Castillo, to buy him a king cake.
"She was like, 'Really? We just arrived in this country!'"
At Norma's Sweets Bakery in the Mid-City -- Castillo manages this second location of his mother's bakery -- king cake has become an essential item. Filled with guava and cream cheese and covered in a light layer of icing, Norma's cake plays with the power of subtle sweetness, providing a crisp, fruity bite for all who indulge.
"We wanted to give the community a little taste of the Latin product," Castillo says of their use of guava filling. "Guava is our strawberry in Honduras, and we wanted to make something that allowed us to be part of the community, but that reflected where we're from, too."
In the French Quarter, Brennan's has found a pleasant intersection between simplicity and innovation. The storied restaurant started selling king cakes nationally in 2021, including a traditional take with notes of cinnamon and butter in every bite.
"It's really just a fun time for the city," says Ralph Brennan, an owner. "We all have these incredible memories of eating our favorite king cake and participating in the parade, and we want to be part of those memories for the next generation."