The Tradition of King Cake Continues

On Tuesday is Mardi Gras, also known as "Fat Tuesday". It's traditionally celebrated as the last day of indulgence and revelry before the start of the annual Christian fasting season known as Lent. And no Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans is ever complete without the king cake, a traditional pastry dating back to the 19th century. Louisiana bakery owner and pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin discusses the king cake and its place in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And on a happier note, it is Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday. It's called that because today is traditionally celebrated as the last day of indulgence and revelry before Christians observe the annual fasting season before Easter known as Lent. But if you've ever celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans, home of the nation's biggest carnival parade, then you'd know that no celebration is complete without a king cake. The traditional king cake looks like a coffee cake. It's round, or oval-shaped. It's often braided, and it's served with a surprise inside.

Joining us now to share a little bit more about the tradition of the king cake is pastry chef Jean-Luc Albin. He is the proprietor of Maurice French Pastries in Metairie, Louisiana, right outside New Orleans.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JEAN-LUC ALBIN (Pastry Chef; Owner, Maurice French Pastries): Well, thank you, and happy Mardi Gras.

MARTIN: Happy Mardi Gras to you. I understand that you make thousands of king cakes every carnival season. Do you know what the history is of the king cake?

Mr. ALBIN: Well, basically, it is - the original king cake from New Orleans started here in 1872, when it was a celebration to the Mardi Gras Ball and the Mardi Gras parade and all the parties going from the Epiphany, which is on January the 6th, the beginning of king cake season.

MARTIN: And there's a surprise inside. Do you mind telling us what the surprise is?

Mr. ALBIN: Well, the surprise one time used to be a bean. Now we'll put a plastic baby. And the plastic baby represents baby Jesus.

MARTIN: And if you get the piece that happens to have the little Baby Jesus in it, does something special happen?

Mr. ALBIN: Well, you become the king for that party, and you must get a king cake. And at the next party, you know, they ought to get another king.

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

Mr. ALBIN: And it goes on until Mardi Gras day.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, I know you don't want to tell me all of your secrets, but is it hard to prepare a really good king cake, or is it relatively easy?

Mr. ALBIN: No, it's fairly easy. It's a cinnamon coffee cake. As long as you have good ingredients, good flour, good butter and fresh eggs, quality cinnamon, you know, and then a good filling, because we'll put different cake, different filling. They come with a cream cheese and a bunch of different fruit filling, like you would see on the coffee cake on a Danish. Strawberry - the most popular, strawberry, blueberry, praline, come up with all kind of different filling on the king cake.

MARTIN: So different fillings are okay? You know, sometimes traditionalists think that all that is just, you know, messing it up.

Mr. ALBIN: Yeah. It would be - the traditional would be the cinnamon.

MARTIN: Traditional would be the cinnamon.

Mr. ALBIN: Just cinnamon.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite?

Mr. ALBIN: Yes, I do have a favorite. I like the praline and brandy. I do a praline cream, and I finish up with Southern Comfort liquor, mixed well together and then fill it up inside the oblong cake, roll it, poof it and bake it.

MARTIN: Oh, man. Now I'm really sad that I'm not there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was doing okay, but now I'm really sad that I'm not there. Well, what are you going to do today? Do you have the day off to enjoy the festivities, or are you still turning them out?

Mr. ALBIN: Yeah. The bakeries are closed, because we are so near by the parade routes. There is no traffic allowed for cars, only pedestrians, of course, and people are going to the route, on the route itself. I give my employees off. They're happy, of course. I'm not even sure if anybody would like to come to work on Mardi Gras day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBIN: I know I'm not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So might as well just give in, right?

Mr. ALBIN: That's it. That's it. But we need - because we need that day off, because it's very stressful and very busy from King's Day from January 6th, actually, right after Mardi Gras to now - after Epiphany until now.

MARTIN: So the Day of the Three Kings, or Epiphany, which is January 6th.

Mr. ALBIN: January 6th, the beginning of king cakes season.

MARTIN: All the way through now.

Mr. ALBIN: Right. And then we do king cakes. We had Super Bowl, so we do the color of the team of the Super Bowl last year. It was a lot of black and gold and fleur-de-lis-shaped king cake, you know, in honor of our dear Saints. Valentine was in the middle, too, so the king cake in the shape of the heart, and they have red and pink sugar and stuff like that, you know.

MARTIN: You need a break.

Mr. ALBIN: I need a little break.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBIN: But now I'm point to enjoy it. I'm going to be on the parade route, and a friend on St. Charles Avenue, which is one of the main avenues in New Orleans, he happened to have a home right there, and so the balcony right overlooking the route. And that will be fantastic.

MARTIN: All right. Jean-Luc Albin is the owner and pastry chef of Maurice French Pastries, just outside of New Orleans. And he was kind enough to take time out of his Mardi Gras celebrations to join us and tell us about the history of king cake.

Jean-Luc, thank you so much for joining us. Happy Mardi Gras.

Mr. ALBIN: Happy Mardi Gras to you. Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Happy Mardi Gras.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.