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The Best Mail-Order King Cakes
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
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What You Need To Know
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.
What Is King Cake?
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.
Bringing King Cake Home
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 ...
Everything We Tested
Our winner was lauded for its moist, “brioche-y” base that was exceptionally “light” and “fluffy” in texture, and for its “beautiful,” “buttery,” “vanilla” flavor.” This cake had cinnamon sprinkled on top of the bread base instead of swirled into the dough, which lent it a mellow cinnamon flavor that was present but “not overpowering.” The DIY frosting was also a fun touch and kept the cake from getting messy in transit.
Available at gambinos.com/shop/king-cakes/king-cake
Though the cake itself was on the drier side, the cinnamon swirl was “amazingly moist” and we liked the “really good basic cinnamon and butter flavor.” The cake looked less colorful than the others—the sugared topping was substantially duller—but tasters didn’t mind, complimenting the frosting’s “surprisingly nice” texture with a “sweet crunch” and “heavy glaze” that “melts in your mouth.” Available at poupartsbakery.com
We liked this “supersatisfying” cake’s moist base and “complex” flavor: “nicely balanced cinnamon and vanilla,” with hints of lemon. The cinnamon swirl was small but “surprisingly flavorful,” and we liked this “luscious” king cake’s thick glaze, too.
Available at haydelsbakery.com/featured/king-cakes
This “really moist” cake stood out for its “cinnamon–bun–like” base with a “layered texture.” We also liked its “thick,” “generous” frosting, which made the cake a little “sticky.” The “lovely cinnamon-citrus flavor” was noticeable but “not overwhelming.” The cake had a “smattering of tricolored sprinkles” instead of the traditional granulated sugar, but tasters still deemed it “pretty and festive.” Available at randazzokingcake.com/cakes
“I’m into the simple style,” said one taster after trying this “nicely light” cake that was “not too sweet.” Our panel liked this cake’s “perfect, soft, bready” texture and the “crunchy” sugar, which created a “good texture contrast” between the “airy” bread base and its topping. And while there “aren’t any swirls” and there was “no cinnamon visible anywhere,” we did pick up on a “strong lemon” flavor. Available at lalouisianebakery.com/product-page/king-cake-plain
Recommended with reservations
Ordered from a Southern grocery chain, this “dense” cake had a “pretty,” “heavy” cinnamon swirl that we admired—“the flavor reminds me of cinnamon swirl bread,” noted one taster. Some detected an “off” flavor, and thought the cake had a “raw,” “underbaked” quality and “mushy texture,” but most liked its “richer flavor” and “creamy” icing.
Available at kingcakes.rouses.com/king-cakes/king-cake-economy-package
We enjoyed the “nicely vanilla” glaze and the addition of almonds in the topping, but we found some textural issues with this “dry,” “pale” king cake. We liked the big cinnamon swirl—it was attractive and provided “good cinnamon flavor”—but the “huge pocket” of “gooey cinnamon” left the surrounding cake a bit “doughy at the center.” Like our winner, this cake also came with icing and sugar separate from the cake for DIY application.
Available at paulspastry.com/index.php/products/king-cakes
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