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I experienced my first king cake about 20 years ago on a visit to Monterrey, Mexico, where my brother lived. The cake was served for Epiphany, January 6, which many Christian churches celebrate as the day the three wise men, or kings, arrived to visit the baby Jesus. Unexpectedly, my piece of the rosca de reyes, as they call it in Mexico, contained a little plastic baby. By local tradition, that made me responsible for providing next year’s cake.
I didn’t get the chance to do that, but a few years later, I discovered the king cake phenomenon along the Texas Gulf Coast. There, the circular, sugary cake is served throughout Carnival season. It begins Epiphany Eve and lasts until Mardi Gras, a day of feasting and revelry on the eve of Lent, a 40-day observance that culminates the day before Easter.
The Gulf Coast king cake tradition likely came from France first to New Orleans, as did many other aspects of that city’s culture, and spread from there. Cakes in this region typically sport icing in the official colors of Mardi Gras: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power. The finder of the baby or other trinket inside the cake often is crowned king or queen of Mardi Gras (which may require providing subsequent cakes).
Even though I grew up on the Texas coast, I somehow missed out on the tradition. After my initiation in Mexico, I spied king cakes in the bakery section of my neighborhood H-E-B grocery store and decided to spare my kids the same fate. The cakes included a plastic baby and Mardi Gras beads. The beads provided a distraction so I could forgo the ritual with the baby in the interest of family peace. (Have you ever seen three kids fight over something insignificant?)
Felicia Peña, with H-E-B’s public affairs office, explains that all their stores (including Central Markets) make the cakes in-house using a version of a New Orleans recipe. Whole Foods Markets also sell king cakes, but many aficionados have their favorite sources, including Acadian Bakers in Houston, Sawyer & Co. in Austin and Valentine’s Bakery in El Paso.
While I can’t personally vouch for those, a few years ago, I found myself in Beaumont during Carnival. Residents of the area will express no surprise that because of that trip, my favorite king cake comes from Rao’s Bakery.
Opened by the Rao family in 1941, the bakery had several owners before Jake Tortorice bought it in 1998. He had celebrated many a Mardi Gras in New Orleans and considered keeping king cakes at Rao’s an obvious decision.
“King cake was just a natural; I didn’t have to think about it,” he says. “Remember how close we are to Louisiana, and scads of people from there live in the Beaumont area. Everybody knew something about king cakes. The previous owners were offering cinnamon in one size, only during the week of Mardi Gras. We just took it to another level.”
Tortorice starts baking cakes the week after Christmas and sells them through Fat Tuesday. “In January, when everything else is slow, we might sell 20 a day in each store,” he says. “It just keeps growing.”
After tasting Rao’s version, I can see why. The bakery uses a sweet Danish-type dough and adds its own cream cheese filling and icing. In addition to cinnamon, Rao’s offers blueberry, strawberry and chocolate varieties.
Each cake comes with a plastic baby and beads. “We also include a sheet about what the heck a king cake is and what it means,” Tortorice says. “We ship these to New Jersey, California and all over.
“A king cake is just a fun product,” he adds. “Bring someone a king cake and you’ll get a smile.”
Unless, like me, they’re too busy eating it.
See more of Melissa Gaskill’s work at melissa gaskill.blogspot.com.