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Where Y'Eat: The King Cake Extends Its Reign

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Ian McNulty
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King cake has become something far more pervasive than a simple Carnival time treat.

Sidestepping king cake temptation was once relatively easy. It was a matter of steering clear of the office kitchen, the break room or wherever else communal snacks are offered up and, at those parade party where king cakes often lurk, being sure to keep your hands otherwise occupied with beads and drinks.

Anyway, if you weren’t particularly fond of a colorfully-iced cinnamon roll, then the traditional Carnival treat was pretty resistible. Now all of that has changed, and another Carnival season once again opens the king cake floodgates.

There are now king cakes for every taste as more bakeries and pastry chefs put their own stamp on the style. Cream cheese fillings were once regarded with suspicion by the purists — now peanut butter, bacon and even edible gold leaf all make annual appearances as accustomed parts of the king cake playbook.

At the same time, king cake has made the leap from mere dessert to become more of a notion, a flavor profile and even a marketing hook. So now king cake isn’t just something to eat with your coffee, but a flavor for your coffee, as served at various local coffee shops. And king cake isn’t only something to nibble between drinks, it is the drink, thanks (if that’s the word) to a number of booze brands selling king cake-flavored vodka.

King cake long ago joined the pantheon of sno-ball flavors, and in something of a seasonal hand-off the prodigious king cake producer Haydel’s Bakery has been converting sno-ball stands to pop-up outlets for its cakes, with examples at the SnoWizard stand Uptown on Magazine Street and Chilly’s SnoBalls on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie emerging this year.

That aligns with another wrinkle to the king cake game — ubiquity. This year, a Lakeview pizzeria called Pizza NOLA will even deliver them like one of its pepperoni pies.

Essentially, if you are trying to avoid king cake this season, you are doomed. If you don’t see a king cake within immediate view, or at least some king cake riff or reference, look out because it might be right behind you. Or maybe the delivery guy is just about to ring your doorbell to bring one.

On the other hand, if you can’t get enough king cake, if you’re ready to just belly flop on in to the king cake mania we are observing, well, this Sunday, Jan. 25, could be a day of destiny. That’s the date for the now-annual King Cake Festival, because of course someone in this town would eventually create a king cake festival. This one is a benefit for Ochsner Hospital for Children, with vendors from bakeries, donut shops and food trucks gathered in Champions Square by the Superdome.

The public gets to vote on best in show, which of course means sampling across the field. And that means eating a lot of cake, though heaven knows this Carnival season will give us plenty of practice. The king cake is everywhere, and in dizzying variety, and as the trend continues the plastic baby isn’t the only one getting stuffed.
 
What: King Cake Festival
Where: Champions Square, at the Mercedes Benz Superdome
When: Jan. 25, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Details at www.kingcakefestival.org

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.