Even if you're not in New Orleans, you can still get an authentic taste of Mardi Gras—delivered. Which mail-order king cake was our all-around favorite?
Published Feb. 2, 2018. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 12: A Trip to the Big Easy
There are three key Mardi Gras foods: Fried chicken, king cake, and more king cake. Fried chicken is the ultimate portable parade food: Grab a bucket of Popeye’s and plant yourself on St. Charles Avenue to watch the floats and marching bands go by. King cake, though, is Mardi Gras in food form.
Growing up in Louisiana, I ate slices of this jewel-toned cake for weeks straight every year, from January 6—the official start of the Mardi Gras season—to Fat Tuesday, which is February 13 this year and can fall anywhere from early February to early March. We ate king cake at home, in school, even after swim practice, when we’d exit the pool and get cake first, towels second. King cake was paramount. And delicious.
Reportedly brought to New Orleans from France in the late 19th century, king cake is a celebratory, vibrant dessert often likened to brioche and cinnamon rolls, though some bakeries use a breakfast danish dough as the base. The cake is ring-shaped and topped with colored sugar, a nod to Mardi Gras’s close ties to Epiphany, which falls on January 6. Also known as Twelfth Night or the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany commemorates the three kings’ (or wise men’s) visit to baby Jesus. The ring-shaped cake symbolizes a crown honoring the kings, and the trifecta of purple, green, and gold sugar on top is meant to resemble jewels, with the colors representing justice, faith, and power, respectively. Inside the cake, there’s also usually a small plastic baby, which plays a key role in the Mardi Gras festivities (see "About That Little Plastic Baby").
But technical explanations aside, according to New Orleans food critic, radio host, and author Tom Fitzmorris, king cake is “a widespread excuse to have a party,” and the embedded trinket is at the center of it. “What you do with a king cake is you look out for that little plastic baby,” Fitzmorris said. “The one who has the baby inside his slice of king cake is required to give a party no later than a week from that moment. And then it keeps on going.” Fitzmorris even told us about a friend who used to make king cake with a baby in every slice, ensuring a Carnival season full of parties—and king cake.
In an attempt to celebrate Mardi Gras from afar, I looked for a bakery selling king cake in Boston but came up empty-handed. I could have made one myself—my colleagues at Cook’s Country have developed a recipe—but nothing beats an authentic king cake from a Southern bakery. And while flying to the Crescent City for cake wouldn’t be completely out of character for me, I was happy to learn that mail-order options abound. Curious to find out more, I ...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.