King Cake: Not Just Another Cake!
It was extraordinary how, after the disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2006, people, both in and outside Louisiana, ordered thousands of king cakes to feel connected with each other, thereby bringing about a sense of safety and security during such turbulent times. The sweetness and colors of this cake helped them bring back the colors in their lives.
The king cake season begins from the Eve of Epiphany (also known as 'The Twelfth Night' after Christ's birth) which falls on January 5th, and is celebrated until Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), that falls on the day prior to Ash Wednesday. It was only on the day of Epiphany that the Three Kings visited Baby Jesus. Hence, the cake is called 'The King Cake' taking its name after the three kings. In fact, the three colors that are used to decorate this cake, are also chosen so as to honor the three kings or Magi. Purple stands for justice; Green is the color of faith; Gold represents power.
The history of king cake is quite rich, just like its taste! The tradition dates back to more than 300 years. Initially, this cake was made out of a dry dough, the kind that is used to make French bread, and was coated with sugar. However, over the years it has transformed drastically, coming in all forms of fancy colors and toppings. A typical king cake is made out of cinnamon, Danish-type dough, and icing, and is hollow in shape. Small trinkets, popularly a baby figurine, is inserted in the cake, and the whole point of eating the cake is to see who finds this baby in his/her slice!
The Purpose of Placing a Baby in a King Cake
Originally, it wasn't a baby figurine, but a bean that was placed in the cake. The whole purpose behind placing the bean, or other such trinkets, was to bring about a sense of fun, unity, and involvement of one and all while eating the cake. Whoever was lucky enough to get the bean in his/her slice was titled as the king/queen of the party, and was responsible for purchasing the king cake for the next event!
Even now, when the bean has been replaced by the baby figurine, either made of plastic or ceramic, or even gold, the purpose of its placement in the cake hasn't changed. Finding the baby in a king cake is taken very seriously and all the obligations and privileges that come along, just add to the festivity and enjoyment of the party.
Symbolism of the Baby in the King Cake
While there are some sources that state otherwise, the baby figurine in the cake is widely believed to represent none other than Baby Jesus. Considering the fact that the king cake celebrations begin on the Eve of Epiphany, and the cake itself is named after the three kings, the presence of the baby obviously connotes none other than Baby Jesus. The whole essence of keeping the baby figurine hid inside the cake possibly represents the quest of the three kings to find the Blessed Baby who was born somewhere away, hidden from the world. Therefore, those who are lucky enough to find it, are tagged as the kings/queens.
Now, coming back to the "sources that state otherwise." As mentioned earlier, the custom of using a baby as a hidden trinket evolved much later. Reportedly, the owner of the famous McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes of New Orleans, that closed down in the year 2000, claims that it was their bakery that pioneered the whole trend of using a baby in the king cake, thereby replacing the bean. In an interview with 'The Times-Picayune' in the year 1990, Donald Entringer Sr., stated that, "A salesman came in one day and said, 'Look at this cute little thing. It won't get lost like a pecan or a bean'." He continued, "I've heard people say it's supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that's not true," Stating that there was no deliberate thought behind picking a baby, he said, "Why we picked this, I don't know. It was cute. It was just a trinket that happened to be a baby."
Irrespective of whether or not the baby is representative of Jesus, it is considered as the harbinger of good luck and prosperity to whoever finds it on his/her plate. Some also associate the finding of the baby as a sign that the person will become a father/mother in the coming year.
In Conclusion ...
Because of the many crucial aspects associated with this figurine, be it in terms of symbolic representation, or deciding who the next host of the party would be, the baby in the king cake is an indispensable part of the festivities that continue with all liveliness and zest, until Mardi Gras. Bakeries are flooded with king cake orders, and the cute little colorful baby figurines are given separately to the customers to be inserted in the cake. This is done as a precautionary measure, as the hidden trinket poses a threat of choking. The bakers want to be free from such responsibility, therefore, the buyers are expected to hide the baby themselves and warn the guests to be wary of a tiny trinket while they bite into their slice. Don't forget to do the same yourself. Have an awesome Mardi Gras with a irresistibly yummy king cake!