- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In New Orleans, people have always known what king cake is and when you should eat it. These days, that certainty is fading.

For years, families celebrated the arrival of Carnival season with king cake — an oval-shaped pastry that commemorates 12th Night, on Jan. 6, the day the Catholic faith says three wise men arrived with gifts for the baby Jesus.

That’s as it should be, said Carnival historian Errol Laborde. Like oysters, Creole tomatoes and crawfish, things are better at the proper time.

“No king cake will touch my lips before 12th Night or after Mardi Gras,” Mr. Laborde said.

For years after French settlers brought the tradition to New Orleans, king cake was a plain pastry topped with purple, green and gold sugar and eaten only during the Carnival season, which culminates on Mardi Gras, Feb. 5 this year.

The Twelfth Night Revelers — the krewe whose ball traditionally signals the start of the season of parades and balls — uses a wooden replica of a king cake. Women pull open little drawers in the cake’s lower layer, which contain silver and gold beans. Silver means you’re in the ball’s royal court; get a gold bean and you’re the queen.

Traditional king cake is made of sweet breadlike pastry with thin icing and sugar topping. Each contains a plastic baby, but the tradition originally called for a red bean. In community life beyond the trappings of private balls, the person who gets the baby is supposed to supply the next king cake for family or office gatherings.

“I’m a purist,” said cookbook author Kit Wohl. “I believe king cake should be what it’s always been, plain and with a baby, but now people have gilded the lily. Now they can be made with stuffing. It can be sweet or savory.”

To the dismay of traditionalists, king cakes can also now be many flavors and shapes, and are available all year-round.

“That’s how it used to be — you only ate them on King’s Day,” said David Haydel Jr., 32, whose family has been baking in New Orleans for three generations. “It gradually expanded out through whole season and now, with the Internet, we do king cakes all year.”

New Orleans is the king cake capital, but other cities with a European Carnival tradition have bakeries that produce some version during the season. Cincinnati, with its large German population, is an example.

In New Orleans, bakeries are turning them out in greater quantities than ever and in more styles. Mr. Haydel’s does a candy-cane-shaped cake for Christmas and a New Orleans Saints king cake with black-and-gold icing, among others.

On average, Mr. Haydel’s ships 50,000 king cakes worldwide during Carnival season.

In addition to the cinnamon-flavored traditional cake, they come with fruit fillings, cream cheese and sometimes a praline-flavored filling.

At Commander’s Palace, known for itshaute Creole cuisine and elegant dining, king cake is rarely on the menu, said Ti Martin, whose family owns the famous restaurant. But it’s frequently on the menu at home.

“We have them all the time during Mardi Gras,” Mr. Martin said, who prefers the cream-cheese cake. “And we send them as gifts to people in the restaurant business and our suppliers. We skip Christmas gifts and just go straight to king cakes. They love them.”

At Manny Randazzo’s King Cakes, a bakery that only produces king cakes, business is booming. Although they sell them on the Internet year-round, the bakery opens two weeks before Christmas with king cakes for that holiday. On Jan. 3, it reopens for Carnival season and keeps cranking them out until “Lundy Gras,” or Mardi Gras eve.

“We just bake as many as we can and put them out,” said store manager Johnita Perkins. “Every year we need more of them.”

King cakes shipped from bakeries run in the $40-$45 range and the packages include beads, doubloons and other souvenirs of the Carnival season.

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