(KLTV/KTRE) - King Cakes show up in bakeries and grocery stores in January every year, and though you have probably noticed them and eaten them, have you ever learned why the dense, colorfully-decorated concoctions are there?
Louisiana-style King cakes are made of a yeast dough which is twisted into a ring shape and baked. It's then decorated with a sweet icing and sprinkled with green, gold and purple sugars. These are the pastries most Southerners see in their bakeries. In some parts of the country, the cakes are sometimes baked with a fruit topping, or stuffed with pieces of fruit.
King cakes were originally baked with a fava bean inside. This was a practice that began during ancient Saturnalia celebrations. The tradition, according to Paste Magazine, was that whoever got the bean in their piece of the cake was crowned "King of the Day."
During the Middle Ages, the worship of Saturn gave way to Catholicism and its beliefs. Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, is celebrated on January 6, in recognition of the day the Three Wise Men or Kings brought gifts to Baby Jesus. During that time, bakers switched from using a bean in the cake to using a tiny crown. During the French revolution, this practice was disapproved of by French monarchs, so bakers, to avoid getting into trouble, began using a variety of random objects in the cakes, not just crowns.
It is believed putting the baby figurine in the cakes began in the 1950s. Some say it is meant to represent the Baby Jesus, while some say it is meant to represent fertility. Either way, you may have noticed in recent years the baby has been included along with your cake in a small plastic bag, not baked inside the cake. Bakers began doing this, some say, to stop people who were unfamiliar with the tradition from coming back to complain that they found a foreign object in their pastry, or worse, choking on it. They now let the purchaser of the cake hide the baby themselves.
Also in recent years, you may have noticed that there's even a life-sized King Cake Baby who travels around with the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team. Some people love him, some people are scared of him.
The main thing to remember about King Cake, though, is that a well-made one is delicious and you should enjoy it as soon as possible. They'll disappear after Mardi Gras!
Click here to see Emeril LaGasse's King Cake recipe if you're interested in making one or just checking out what all the fuss is about.