Mardi Gras king cakes often have a little pink plastic “baby” placed inside them. Traditionally, whoever finds the baby in his or her slice of cake must provide the king cake for the next party.
The custom of Mardi Gras king cakes is believed to have begun in connection with the celebration of Kings’ Day, the Twelfth Day after Christmas, which commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men of the East to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Christ child.
During the festivities, a king and queen were chosen to reign over a grand ball. Most accounts of the cake’s history suggest that the carnival king was the one who found a bean, coin or other small favor hidden in the king cake.
Eventually, the token was replaced with a little ceramic figure that represented the Christ child and finally with today’s less expensive plastic baby.
France had two king cake traditions. In northern France, the Galette des Rois was round and made with flaky pastry layers filled with almond paste, while the Bordeaux Twelfth Night Cake of southern France was made with sweet brioche dough and looked more like the king cake served today in Louisiana.
Forte Grove, a small artisan bakery in Plaquemine which produces European-style breads and pastries for sale at Baton Rouge and New Orleans farmers markets and restaurants, makes both large and small Galettes des Rois during carnival season. It places a ceramic figurine or “feve” in each of its large cakes.
The owners, Kathleen and Bill Cooper, went to France during Epiphany several years ago and learned that the ceramic figures are available in different themes.
“Many of the bakeries adopt a theme of feve for their Galettes des Rois each year,” Bill Cooper said. “Many larger bakeries even have a series custom-designed for them. We have chosen to get a Manger-theme.”
They purchase several 28-piece sets each year.
Bill Cooper noted that many south Louisiana “bakeries have gotten out of the practice of placing a baby in the cake. It appears the main issue is product liability. … Forte Grove continues to place a ceramic figurine in each of our large Galettes des Rois.
In an attempt to mitigate liability, our label clearly states, ‘PRODUCT CONTAINS CERAMIC FIGURINE.’ We have provided this notification for years.”
This year, Forte Grove also created two new king cakes featuring its chocolate bread crafted into a ring, but doesn’t put a “feve” in either one.
The king cakes made by pastry chef Maggie Scales of The Link Restaurant Group for Cochon Butcher, 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, don’t have a little pink “baby” in them. Instead, their signature favor is a tiny pink pig.
La Davina Italian Cafe, 3535 Perkins Road, Baton Rouge, also has come up with a unique token in place of the “baby” — a green gummy bear for its king cake gelato.