Only one day a year must you carefully search through your dessert to make sure you’re not about to bite into a tiny baby hidden inside.
Fat Tuesday is only a few days away, and people across the country will be feasting on a traditional dessert called King Cake. Even though Wichita is a long way from New Orleans, the King Cake tradition is observed by many local bakeries, who plan to sell their own versions of the brightly-colored cakes.
“For the past six weeks, I’ve had people calling just to ask if we’re going to do them,” said Kelli Sykes, who owns Sugar Sisters Bakery at 917 W. Douglas.
King Cakes are typically oval-shaped and cinnamon-flavored. They’re often topped with icing and are always decorated with gold, purple and green sugar crystals. Hidden deep inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby, and whoever gets the slice with the baby in it is named king for the day – an honor that carries with it the responsibility of purchasing the next King Cake.
This timelapse video by John Fitzhugh shows how South Mississippi bakers make a king cake. (Feb. 9, 2016)
The King Cake tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is believed to have originated in France and Spain. The cakes were served as part of Epiphany celebrations, and the colors represented the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Green represents faith, gold represents power, and purple represents justice.
New Orleans appropriated the tradition, and now the cake is closely associated with Mardi Gras. King Cakes start appearing on bakery shelves in January and are served all the way through Fat Tuesday.
In Wichita, each bakery has its own take on the cake.
At Sugar Sisters, Sykes uses her cinnamon roll recipe to construct her cakes. She forms the dough into an oval, then frosts it and decorates it in traditional colors. She sells her cakes, which can feed 15, for $20. Mostly she sells to customers who have pre-ordered, though she does usually have a few on hand on Fat Tuesday.
“Fat Tuesday is all about eating, and it’s kind of fun,” she said. “I get a lot of people who are going into the office, and a King Cake is something to bring and enjoy since you only get to do it once a year.”
One caveat about Sykes’ King Cakes: The baby comes on the side.
She prefers that people hide the plastic trinket themselves so they know where it is and can reduce the risk of a Mardi Gras choking incident.
“I have a lot of lawyers in the family,” she said with a laugh.
Babies also come on the side at Great Harvest, 535 N. Woodlawn, where owner Lesli Toubassi is selling King Cakes for the first time this year. A friend from New Orleans encouraged her to add the cakes to her Fat Tuesday repertoire, she said, and she asked the friend to taste test them before she started selling them last month.
Great Harvest’s King Cakes are made using the store’s signature cinnamon chip bread dough. The store also takes special orders, although it will have several of the cakes, which are $13.49 apiece, on sale on Fat Tuesday.
“I love that they’re festive,” Toubassi said. “It’s a new seasonal product that I can offer my customers, give them another reason to come in.”
At Milkfloat, the cakes are made with brioche bread stuffed with cream cheese and are available individual-sized or full-sized. Not all of the one-person cakes have a baby hidden inside, but the ones that do earn their owners a free beverage at the store, said owner Cliff Bragg.
On Tuesday, Milkfloat will have several other Mardi Gras treats on the menu, including New Orleans-style iced coffee.
“People have been really excited about them,” Bragg said of the King Cakes. “Not everybody knows about King Cakes, so it’s been kind of a neat educational opportunity as well.”
Get your King Cake
Here are some of the bakeries making King Cakes this year. Some will have them in stock on Tuesday, but if you want to make sure to get one, call and place an order in advance.