Once upon a time, the king cake arrived in New Orleans as just a piece of the Carnival celebration.
It was a simple pleasure, part of the purple, green and gold landscape that perennially paints New Orleans.
Times have changed. The only thing you’ll hear more about this time of year in New Orleans is the Saints playoff run (which, naturally, has its own tie-in to king cake, as we’ll see below).
You could chalk it up to the New Orleans compulsion to take what it loves to extremes, though other factors are in play.
King cake is now a muse for creative culinary minds and also a sales hook for almost anything that can ride its coattails, edible or not.
It’s an emblem of local pride (“only in New Orleans!”) and also a magnet for derision (“you’re doing it wrong!”).
The cynical might chalk it up to the sugar buzz, but I believe king cake brings optimism.
It’s a personal pleasure, a delight with a sense of place and a tradition passed down through family. It’s also flogged endlessly by online media, always ready to overdo anything that draws attention.
But then, it’s still fun.
Like any hotly anticipated season (Saints, crawfish), it’s worth sizing up at the outset. Based on the trends and momentum of past seasons and early intel about the one upon us, here's your 2019 king cake season preview.
Long season, lots of cake /longest season until 2038
This year’s Carnival season is a long one, stretching eight weeks from Twelfth Night through Mardi Gras on March 5.
That’s 59 days of potential king cake (remember 2018, when you had to cram in all that king cake over a mere 39 days?).
We won’t have a longer Carnival season until 2038, though a few years in between will be equally or nearly as long.
For those counting king cake days, the upshot is to pace yourself, or perhaps to take heart that if you burn out early there’s time to recover and get back in the game.
Saints playoff effect
The Saints seem to influence every facet of New Orleans life one way or another, and king cake is no different.
In the bad old days, when a Saints playoff berth was a glimmering hope, Who Dats had normally hung it up before Twelfth Night. Now though, with the team a frequent contender, we've had more opportunity to analyze what happens when the postseason intersects with Carnival season.
King cake makers around the area say it has a Superdome-sized impact as customers scoop up king cakes for game day parties. It can transform their bottom line and leads to revised calculations all down the supply chain (cue the black and gold-colored sugar).
Everywhere the result is resounding. When the Saints are in the playoffs, king cake sales are through the roof.
For those just tuning in, the Saints play at home Jan. 13 after earning a first-round bye. Continued success, and a possible Saints Super Bowl appearance, might just set some king cake records.
Variety never ending
The reason everything from king cake coffee to king cake vodka can be marketed at you is the distinct flavor profile that New Orleans people recognize as king cake: cinnamon and vanilla.
From here, however, almost any kind of sweet craving you can imagine is eligible to be recruited into the king cake matrix.
You could easily have a different kind of king cake every week – not just from a different maker, but altogether different styles.
King cake variety is the whole idea behind the King Cake Hub, a new concept this year.
The King Cake Hub operates from the Mortuary Haunted House (a one-time funeral home converted to an entertainment center). It's planned as a one-stop shop for various king cakes from area bakeries, with the likes of Gambino’s, Cannata’s, Hi-Do Bakery, Bywater Bakery and Girls Gone Vegan. It’s selling a king-cake-of-the-week club deal through the season too.
The CBD food hall Pythian Market, also new this year, adds its own gambit dubbed a "Downtown NOLA's King Cake Central," selling cakes from three producers: Nonna Randazzo, Gracious Bakery and Sucre, whole or by the slice.
I know people who orchestrate this kind of circuit court of king cake on their own. In some offices, necks crane to see which type the next person up has brought in, the expectation being no repeats.
King cake marketeers have caught up. If your goal is variety, it’s easier than ever.
Weird is the new normal
Not so long ago, the prospect of a savory king cake was the stuff of parody (just look online for the enduringly funny “Larry Ragusa King Cake commercial” from the innocent year of 2011).
Now, genre-bending cakes that once had some clutching their plastic Mardi Gras pearls would barely raise an eyebrow among the more-is-more school of creative king cake making.
Savory king cakes are clearly no longer dessert, but a crossover to the appetizer table, something to put next to the sandwich trays and chicken boxes.
Crawfish-stuffed king cake makes regular appearances (check out the one from Cavan returning this season with Cajun caviar for good measure). The Station Coffee Shop & Bakery has staked its own claim to savory, adding a muffuletta king cake this year. Bywater Bakery this year has a whole sideline of them coming, in boudin, crawfish and spinach and artichoke.
I hear the howls of protest already. These creations aren't even cake, much less king cake. But they get attention, and as long as they hold that currency they'll be part of the Carnival time parade of food.
Anyway, the bar has already moved. All the boudin and crawfish and olive salad pales in comparison to the annual bit of insect awareness-building wrapped up in the cricket king cake.
Unleashed each season by the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, it’s an otherwise normal king cake decorated with roasted crickets. It’s served in sample sized at the museum’s in-house café, Bug Appétit, on Jan. 6 and then from Jan. 22 through Mardi Gras.
I tried one last year. It tastes...crunchy.
Prediction: As a craze continues, new players looking to upset
Something about king cake makes New Orleans go a little nuts. Last year served up a prime example in the case of Dong Phuong.
The Vietnamese bakery in the far reaches of New Orleans East has built a fanatical following in recent years for its distinctive king cake, and it developed a circuit of other stores and restaurants to distribute it.
But a few weeks into last year's season, the bakery decided to pull back and restrict sales to its own store. The move came amid a Furby-worthy craze that brought rumors of scalping, hoarding and scheming to get these king cakes without the drive out east.
This year, Dong Phuong is selling its cakes at its store and shipping them via online orders and also distributing though a small number of regional outlets. They include Zuppardo’s in Metairie, Nesbit's Poeyfarre Market in the Warehouse District, Mr. Bubbles (inside the Hong Kong Market complex in Gretna), Pho Cong in Covington and Jeanfreau’s in Chalmette.
Dong Phuong reports that this year it will manage the quantities sent to its distributors differently to better handle supply and demand.
I would not bet against that demand being there once again. The Dong Phuong king cake, with its butter-crisp texture under cream cheese icing, is a special cake.
However, each season brings new wrinkles to the king cake game, new styles and flavors and trends. The spotlight is ever shifting, and the door is open for new players to make a splash. Just try not to fight over them.
Resistance is futile
It's not your imagination, and it's not just the tunnel vision of a sugar craving. King cake is everywhere now.
There are simply more places to get them, as even shops that don't make their own keep an inventory of the popular product from suppliers. King cake by the slice is now commonplace, eliminating the excuse that you don't want to buy a whole cake. And the ongoing trend of evermore restaurants — and cafes, and bakeries — means there are simply more outlets slinging king cake everywhere you turn.
Of particular interest this year are new locations from familiar names in the game. In the past year, this has expansions from Haydel's, with its new Magazine Street bakeshop; Gracious Bakery+Cafe, with its fourth location now open downtown in the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute; Toast with its new French Toast eatery in the French Quarter; and a Lakeview location of Chez Pierre French Bakery, its fifth outlet, opening this month.
Traditional still rules
For all the king cake convolutions out there now, often the cravings snap back to their original form. Many bakeries report that the traditional New Orleans king cake – a brioche ring, with that cinnamon and vanilla – still outsells all the rest.
Sometimes, true mastery of the classic can be the most impressive measure of a kitchen.
Some examples that come to mind: the “plain” at Hi-Do Bakery in Terrytown, the “old Orleans McKenzie” tribute style at Marguerite’s Cakes in Slidell, the basic floor model from Haydel’s or the "old school" at Rouses or the standard at Maple Street Patisserie, to name just a few.
This is king cake to dunk in your afternoon coffee or toss in the bag you bring to parade parties, unconcerned about any elaborate toppings getting smushed.
This year, my own goal is to explore and hopefully find more standouts within the parameters of the traditional king cake’s simple pleasures.
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