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Where Y'Eat: The Quest For A King Cake Classic

King cakes have become a popular cultural icon in New Orleans, though some still look for the satisfaction of an old classic style.
Ian McNulty
King cakes have become a popular cultural icon in New Orleans, though some still look for the satisfaction of an old classic style.

King cakes have been popular in New Orleans for a long time. But not this popular. Something has changed.

King cake has become a cultural statement, one of those emblems of pride that New Orleans uses to celebrate itself. King cake is the Saints fleur-de-lis of food. You live it, you wear it, you rally around it.

Yes, king cake is still the foundation for good old-fashioned Carnival fun. But now it’s also a muse for creative exploration, a flavor profile and a marketing hook, one aimed at tapping local loyalties and sense of place. There’s king cake-flavored coffee and vodka and daiquiris. King cake is fodder for jewelry and T-shirts, bibs and baby clothes. There’s king cake art, king cake crafts and king cake kitsch.

Always a calorie trap, king cake is now click bait too, endlessly flogged by the media, myself included, because, of course, we know you will look. It’s colorful, fun and oh-so-New Orleans. Who can resist?

Along the way, king cakes themselves have changed. Bakers and pastry chefs have been applying their talents, and the results have snowballed into ever more individualistic expressions and attention-getting examples to rise above the din. Some invest as much creative energy into the season’s king cake as dedicated revelers put into their costumes, and personally, I look forward to their creations each year.

But for all that’s new, the old idea of the king cake retains a powerful draw. These are the so-called plain king cakes, the McKenzie’s gold standard of yesteryear, an oblong ring of puffy brioche, pale yellow, barely sweet, hardly even a cake, with piles of colored sugar on top but no frosting and no fillings.

But if the plain cakes themselves seem ordinary, the reaction they inspire can be just the opposite. Biting into such simplicity can turn people who aren’t normally very picky eaters into flavor detectives, assessing and obsessing over subtle differentials from one cake to another. Listen to them describe the variances of flavor and mouth feel, of color and texture on one of these classics and they can sound like wine critics ranking Bordeaux.           

And in between the technical comparisons, you can also hear some deeply set associations – the king cakes dad would bring home after his morning coffee, the ones the teachers let them eat at school, and one they remember from the office break room back at their first job.

There’s a challenge to these old classics for bakers too. When your king cake is something the world has never seen before, if it’s delicious and beautiful and pleasing, well, that's enough. But if you're going after an idealized old classic, the stakes are different. You’re chasing a platonic essence of king cake and competing with memory and good feelings from the past, now invulnerable to reinterpretation.

It is these minimalist cakes, these plain cakes with the least to distinguish them, that can invite the most intense analysis. If all the modern renditions are a sign of New Orleans innovation, maybe the old school ones speak to something more heirloom and ancestral, perhaps harder to love but easily identified as ours. In this town, that’s something that will always get people talking, even if their mouths are full king cake. 

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