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The Roman Catholic feast of the epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, represents the day that the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. It is the official first day of the countdown to Lent, and thus to Mardi Gras, the last day of revelry before the sacrifices of Lent.

The day (January 6) is also known as Twelfth Night, because it is 12 days after Christmas. Thus, Twelfth Night is the official opening day of the Mardi Gras season (and the close of Christmas holiday celebrations).

French style king cake.

King cake with a crown.

Da baby! (photo: Adam Karlin)

Apple and goat cheese king cake, Cake Cafe (Adam Karlin)

Twelfth Night has an added element of importance: it is the day that we begin to eat king cake.

The origins of the cake and the practice of selecting a person to be crowned king by hiding a bean (often a large fava bean) or other favor in the cake go back centuries. As with so many traditions there is no clear path to an origin, and in truth, we can see elements of many traditions combining in the practice of selecting a king for the day.

Shakespeare wrote a play, called Twelfth Night, about the day of revelry, a holiday that was obviously well established when the drama was written at the turn of the 17th century.

The brioche style cake shaped into a ring and decorated with colored sugars in the three colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold, has evolved into a richer Danish dough filled with almost any sweet treat imaginable. Liz Williams, Southern Food & Beverage Institute.

Coronations were a strong element of those early, pre-Lent, post-Christmas celebrations. The person whose piece of cake contained the bean or favor was the king or queen for the party – the Lord of Misrule – perhaps wearing a paper crown while ordering companions to be silly in an annual reversal of roles. In more modern times, as king cakes became office sharing treats, the person who received the bean was expected to bring the next king cake to the office.

These days, it’s the rare cake that carries a bean. McKenzie’s Bakery is credited with distinguishing its cakes by using a small bisque doll – the baby doll – instead of a bean. Eventually, the bisque passed out of favor, but not the baby.

By the time the bisque dolls were no longer available, we king cake eaters had shortened the reference to the favor to “Who got the baby?” Thus the new standard favor is a small plastic baby, and nary a bean is to be found, except in the occasional homemade king cake.

As the traditions associated with king cake have evolved, and so too have the flavors. The brioche style cake shaped into a ring and decorated with colored sugars in the three colors of Mardi Gras, purple, green and gold, has evolved into a richer Danish dough filled with almost any sweet treat imaginable. Today in addition to sugars king cakes can be topped with glazes, pecans and other goodies.

King cake marks our transition from the indulgence of Carnival to the austerity of Lent. We eat king cake until Mardi Gras and then fast until the beginning of the next Mardi Gras season.

All images by Stephen Binns, unless otherwise noted.

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