Ash Wednesday is right around the corner, and that means Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras in turn means … well, lots of things. Cheap beads in the horrifically incompatible colors of green, gold, and purple. Eight-foot-wide masks that could double as sets for a Wes Anderson movie. Enough sketchy renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to make you hate the most lovable kitten meme of classic Dixieland songs. A spike in drunk-and-disorderlys. And for us, one of our favorite things ever: king cakes.
We will not declare the king cake to be nature’s most perfect food, because nature had so very little to do with it. However, it is a perfectly wonderful concept: the doughnut, made larger and even sweeter, so that one can feed many (or just a few, or just one, depending on how you play it). The prototypical king cake is a ring of sweet dough, baked or fried to a turn, gobbed with white frosting and buried under green/gold/purple sprinkles. The cake is often filled, like a kringle or a jelly doughnut; some come with even more sprinkles on the side, and all come with a key ingredient that’s even more indigestible than anything mentioned previously: a baby.
The baby is key to the king-cake tradition. The baby – not a real baby, silly, but a very small plastic one – represents Jesus, and the cake celebrates the three kings’ visit and their three gifts, hence the three colors of sprinkles. (A different variation on the story states that purple, gold, and green stand for justice, power, and faith, respectively. But nothing says they can’t stand for that and frankincense, gold, and myrrh.) The baby is either baked into or buried in the cake; the person who finds it in their piece by tradition buys the next king cake, since one king cake is hardly ever enough to cover a holiday that is technically only one day – Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17 this year) – but actually started Jan. 6.
You can argue that there is no such thing as a bad king cake, and we would agree. Even so, here’s where we find some of our favorites:
Domenica, New Orleans: Domenica is a restaurant, and a fairly fancy one at that, run by a chef with a Reputation (John Besh), so naturally its take on king cake veers off in some interesting, higher-end directions. No mountain of colored sugar here; instead, you get an abundance of salted caramel, roasted pecans, marscapone, caramel creme, bananas, and praline glaze. Domenica’s king cakes aren’t cheap, but $39 buys you an awful lot of quantity and quality.
Cochon Butcher, New Orleans: Yes, you can get king cakes at Cochon Butcher. And of course, toppings include bacon. We don’t care if the cake is made of OSB and latex paint. We want one.
Antoine’s Bakery, Gretna and Metarie, La.: Ever the home of lagniappe, Antoine’s not only offers king cakes but also queen cakes, which come with four-count-‘em-four different fillings for reasons unstated (but which could be construed as vaguely sexist). A medium queen costs $31.95. Fleur-de-lis king cakes go for $39.99 and regular medium king cakes cost only $17.95. But who wants just a regular medium king cake after all that?
Poupart’s Bakery, Lafayette, La.: We are still mourning the departure of Meche’s Donut King from this charming bayou town. In its absence, a king cake from Poupart’s will have to do. It’s really not that much of a sacrifice. Poupart’s standard cake combines a ring of fresh brioche dough with fruit, nut, and cream-cheese fillings, while its highly recommended traditional French King Cake combines puff pastry with almond filling. Buy one, take it home, warm it up with some good New Orleans coffee, and, yeah; heaven. Don’t forget to stop at Dwight’s for crawfish on your way out of town.
Broad Street Baking Co., Jackson, Miss. Broad Street’s lead pastry chef Jen Adelsheimer says some people trek up I-55 from New Orleans to Jackson get their king cakes from Broad Street, and some of them are sober. Ish. The big draw here, besides the palpable lack of intoxicateds, is Broad Street’s savory crawfish king cake, made with jalapeno and-cheddar brioche and filled with crawfish dip.
The Lighthouse Bakery, Dauphin Island, Ala.: The Lighthouse wins the award for best setting. Its location in a 1912-vintage house delivers equal measures old South and island life, and its bakery case is as seductive as any in the area. Lighthouse’s king cakes are more of a local secret, and only available in season, but that’s all the more reason to take a trek down Mobile Bay to this placid getaway. Incidentally, here’s one more positive about Mardi Gras in Alabama: in Mobile, they throw Moon Pies off the floats. And Moon Pies go great with king cakes.