As the king cake joins a long line of New Orleans food traditions up for reinterpretation, bakers and shoppers alike have decisions to make.
King cakes used to be easy. You waited — usually — until the start of Carnival season to get one, you argued about your favorites through the season and eventually you’d groan when yet another cake materialized in the office break room. You had one last slice on Fat Tuesday and that was that.
For New Orleans bakers, the rhythm was similarly reliable. Maybe they had a few variations in the product line, especially as filled king cakes grew popular, but generally each year saw the old reliable king cake recipes come out for a busy baking season.
But today, things are not so simple for bakers and for the New Orleans king cake eating public alike. That’s because the king cake has become another in a long line of local food traditions now up for rapid and vigorous reinterpretation. There has been a boom of new bakeries around town, and more restaurant pastry chefs are taking on the king cake too. Each one now faces a question previous generations would not necessarily have considered: Should they try to align with long-standing local king cake traditions or try to make a splash with something edgier?
Plenty have elected to stick to conventional notions of the king cake — ovals and rounds lavishly frosted and decorated in the purple, green and gold of Carnival. These show no sign of going away. But we’ve also seen king cakes filled with apples and goat cheese from Cake Café & Bakery in the Marigny, while the deli Cochon Butcher sells single-serve cakes in varieties like lemon Doberge and the “Elvis,” with peanut butter, banana and, of course, candied bacon. Perhaps the most audacious model hails from the Italian restaurant Domenica, where the king cake is filled with mascarpone, bananas and whole pecans and topped with so much edible gold leaf it looks like you could pawn the thing.
All this is radically different from the style cemented in the memories of many New Orleanians. But eventually, local bakeries started making modifications to the familiar recipe, adding different fillings and toppings to stand out. Once pastry chefs at smaller, boutique operations took an interest, the changes began to snowball. In recent years, modern king cakes have staked out their own turf beside time-honored versions. For instance, the upscale pastry shop Sucré raised some eyebrows back in 2008 when it first unveiled a sort of glam rock version of the king cake — one with iridescent frosting and airbrushed purple highlights of sugar. But from just 100 or so such cakes sold that first year, Sucré sold 15,000 of them last year. We love tradition in New Orleans, but it’s hard to argue with a response like that.
For a hands-on exploration of this changing terrain, check out the upcoming King Cake Tasting Party at the Little Gem Saloon in the CBD on Feb. 1. It will feature king cakes from across the spectrum for side-by-side tastings and you can vote for your favorite. The way things are headed, it seems like a one-stop chance to visit with both the once and future king cake.
King Cake Tasting Party
When: Feb. 1, at 7 p.m.
Where: Little Gem Saloon: 445 S. Rampart St., New Orleans
Tickets: $20 in advance/$25 at the door
Details at no-prop.com