The king cake is no longer a mere dessert or Carnival season indulgence. Now, king cake is a cultural statement, a movement, and one of those emblems that New Orleans uses to celebrate itself.
King cake has become a muse for creative exploration, a flavor profile and a marketing hook, one aimed at tapping local loyalties and pride of place. There’s king cake-flavored coffee, vodka, soda, beer and daiquiris. King cake inspires jewelry and T-shirts and baby clothes. There’s king cake art, king cake crafts and king cake kitsch. If we don’t yet have access to king cake dog biscuits, surely the market will correct this soon.
King cake is the Saints fleur de lis of food. You live it, you wear it, you rally around it.
Along the way, king cakes themselves have changed. As bakers and pastry chefs apply their talents to the form they have created king cakes for every taste. Some invest as much creative energy into the season’s king cake as dedicated revelers put into their costumes.
But for all that’s new, an older idea of the king cake retains a powerful draw. These are the so-called plain king cakes, those one-dimensional rings of dough, barely sweet, hardly even cakes, with piles of purple, green and gold sugar falling off the top in scattering drifts. There’s no icing, and if there’s any filling at all it’s just a ripple of cinnamon.
How can a cake with so little bling compete with modern extravagances of cream and chocolate and fruit and candy?
They don’t. Instead, they occupy a different realm of the king cake kingdom and they tap cravings that may resonate beyond the taste buds.
Plain, Old School, “old Orleans”
McKenzie’s was the epitome of the old king cake era. And even though that company closed down for good in 2001 its name is still widely invoked as a byword for the power of the plain.
Tastee Donuts now carries the McKenzie’s mantle, having acquired the logo and recipes of the old McKenzie’s brand. Both are put to use at most of the area Tastee Donuts locations.
This cake even looks vintage, a frumpy holdover, puffy and irregular and anything but dainty. It looks like a loaf more than a cake, like you could slice it for a sandwich. To some eyes, though, that is a thing of beauty.
Plenty of bakeries will make a plain cake by request, usually with a day’s notice. Elsewhere the style remains one of the house standards, available boxed and ready off the rack, though there can be a question of terminology. Some examples:
At Haydel’s Bakery, they’re tagged “sugar only,” and they remain a niche product with a strong following amid Haydel’s many specialty king cakes.
This season, Rouses added a plain king cake to its selection. The move came in response to customer requests, said Chaya Conrad, bakery director for grocery chain. Following the Rouses’ house style, they are heavily loaded with cinnamon, and they have only sugar on top. Rouses calls them “old school.” Clearly they are on to something. In its first season, the cake has been accounting for a quarter of Rouses’ king cake sales.
Hi-Do Bakery in Terrytown, which continues the long tradition of Vietnamese French bakeries, similarly interprets “plain” as nothing but sugar on top, and copious amounts of it at that, while a seam of cinnamon is threaded within.
The plain at Adrian’s Bakery is as plain as can be – a thick braid of slightly sweet dough under the Carnival tricolor of sugar. It’s also the top seller at this Gentilly bakery.
Marguerite Riehm, of Marguerite’s Cakes, started filling king cakes with cream cheese and fruit back in 1982, and she claims to be the first to do so. But at her Slidell shop, and at her seasonal satellite location in Metairie, she still makes room for what she dubs the “old Orleans McKenzie” cake, which compares favorable to its namesake.
Simple cakes, deep memories
I have been eating these cakes all season, sharing them with New Orleans people who have been eating king cake all their lives. I’ve been watching and listening as they do. If the plain cakes themselves seem ordinary next to evermore exotic next-generation king cakes, the reaction they inspire can be extraordinary.
Biting into such simplicity can turn people who aren’t normally 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. In between the technical comparisons, you can hear something else - the deeply set associations tied up with the treat. It’s the king cake dad would bring home after his morning coffee, the one 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 usually enough.
But if you’re going after an idealized standard, the stakes are different. You’re chasing a Platonic essence of king cake and competing with memory and good feelings from the past. That’s why these minimalist cakes, with the least to distinguish them, can invite the most intense analysis.
If all the modern renditions are a sign of New Orleans innovation, maybe the old school variety speaks to something more heirloom and ancestral, perhaps harder to love but easily identified as ours.
In this town, that topic will always get people talking, even if their mouths are full of king cake.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.