Every Mardi Gras-related website includes something about the origin of king cakes, including the dubious claim that the baby represents the infant Jesus. But modern New Orleans king cake history has not been well documented. The information below has been gleaned from Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, our files and from bakers who have been around awhile, including the Randazzos, Haydels and Sam Scelfo Jr. of Gambino's. Here, then, are some facts of modern king cake history.
Both types of king cakes in New Orleans, the ring type as well as the "galette de roi" sold in French bakeries, originated in France, according to Williams, who explained that the galette type (of puff pastry and frangipani filling) was popular in the north and the "gateaux de roi" of brioche dough was made in southern France.
"So many French people here were from southern France," Williams said. "There's a lot of Basque in there."
New Orleans bakers added more or fewer egg yolks, Williams said, but in general the dough has become increasingly richer through the years, and much sweeter than the king cakes she remembers from her childhood.
2. In a 1989 interview, McKenzie's Bakery Corp. President Donald Entringer, who had been baking king cakes for 40 years at that point, said it wasn't until 1950 that the public started buying king cakes in large numbers. "It's grown into a tremendous business since then," Entringer said. "It's become more of a way of life for people."
3. King cakes were first filled in the early '80s. A 1990 story in our files quoted Joan Seeman of Jodase Bakery in Metairie as saying that in 1983, the bakery made four filled king cakes "and my husband took them to work. Within half an hour, we had 25 calls. It just kind of grew."
4. In 1988, Angelo Cartozzo said his bakery, Frances', was the first to put apple and cream cheese fillings in king cakes. He made a filled cake for his mother in 1985, he said, and she let customers taste it.
5. Sam Scelfo Jr. says that when Gambino's changed from a bread dough to a Danish dough for king cakes in the early 1980s, he decided to use the same fillings that made the Danish such best-sellers at the bakery.
6. Shipping of king cakes developed around the same time. Some sources note that out-of-town demand for king cakes was fueled when the oil bust forced people to move from the region.
Scelfo says that newspaper food editors raised out-of-state demand, too. When they needed a Mardi Gras food story, they would interview him about king cake.
"They would write these stories in Rochester, N.Y. or Kalamazoo, Mich., and we'd get a blast of orders the next day from there," Scelfo said. "There was no Internet; they would pick up the phone and dial. Those people are a kind of traditional customer who order year in and year out."
7. By 1992, large numbers of king cakes were being shipped; the U.S. Postal Service offered overnight king cake party packages for $18, through an arrangement with 19 bakeries in south Louisiana. At the time, a Federal Express spokesman said their company had been shipping 30,000 king cakes annually since 1988.
8. The elegant branch of the king cake family is the galette des roi, popular Carnival offerings from French bakeries -- puff pastry with almond fillings. Galettes de roi are far outnumbered by the brioche and Danish dough versions of king cakes. But there have basically been only two types.
This explains why the Sucre king cake, with its lustrous deflated-Mylar-balloon appearance, seems so radically different. A trained pastry chef moved to New Orleans in 2006 and reimagined still another version. Tariq Hanna created the city's first 21st-century king cake.
9. King cake innovation has been constant in the last decade. In 2011, New Orleans had an outbreak of miniature king cakes, probably inspired by a nationwide trend of smaller desserts. For the first time, venerable pie-maker Hubig's Pies attempted a yeast dough because sales of its hand-held pies slumped during Carnival, as customers ate king cake instead. Cochon Butcher put a little plastic piglet in its individual-serving king cakes.
10. New and recommended for 2012 outside the King of King Cakes contest:
Triple chocolate king cake from Rouse's Supermarkets, one of four new "gourmet" king cakes offered only in the stores.
The made-in-France Lucky Player brand King Cake Vodka. A shipping glitch delayed the vodka's arrival in local stores, when pent-up demand fueled by social media made it fly off the shelves.