A Taste of Mardi Gras: The Return of the King Cake King cake is a treat tied to the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. With so many people returning to the city from far-flung places, this special Danish-like confection is flying off the shelves at local bakeries.
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A Taste of Mardi Gras: The Return of the King Cake

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A Taste of Mardi Gras: The Return of the King Cake

A Taste of Mardi Gras: The Return of the King Cake

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

If it's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it must be time for a King Cake, and it has special meaning this year with so many people returning to the city after Katrina. This special Danish-like confection is flying off the shelves at local bakeries. NPR's Audie Cornish takes us to a shop that is working hard to fill thousands of order this week.

(Soundbite of store check-out)

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

If you want a King Cake this week, long lines are a necessary evil.

Ms. MONICA MAHAFFEY(ph): Oh, it's a must. A must. We couldn't do without it. We had rainstorm damage, we didn't lose our home, but flood (unintelligible) water. But you know, but we're back at home and it's not going to stop us from getting King Cake.

CORNISH: Monica Mahaffey is standing in the back of the line at Haydel's Bakery with a long list of people she's getting King Cakes for. The braided cinnamon Mardi Gras cake is a special treat she wants to share with the New Jersey family she stayed with after the storm.

And she's not the only one, says Dave Haydel. He's manager of the store, which has been in his family for three generations.

Mr. DAVID HAYDEL (Store Manager, New Orleans): Mail order is definitely up this year. We're getting a lot of people shipping thank you's to people where they evacuated for the hurricane. There's a lot of displaced New Orleanians that have to get their Mardi Gras fix. And some of the gift messages on the labels say, Katrina got the house, it got the car, but it didn't get Haydel's.

CORNISH: And right now Haydel says they've stopped taking orders for anything but King Cake.

The bakery is a flurry of hands, rolling trays and churning mixers. Haydel has specially modified French bread machines that knead and separate the sticky dough.

King Cake is actually not so much cake but a sort of Danish that's braided and baked in the shape of a ring, some with fillings ranging from pineapple to cream cheese.

Mr. HAYDEL: And then it's topped with a (unintelligible) icing and purple, green and gold sugar. That makes a King Cake. Without purple, green and gold sugar, you just have a cinnamon roll.

CORNISH: Only with a peach colored plastic baby inside. Haydel says the cake was once eaten on King's Day, January 6th, in honor of the Magi. Traditionally a bean was hidden in the cake to represent the Christ child. Over the last hundred years people have used porcelain babies and, today, plastic infant figures.

Mr. HAYDEL: We've put out almost 30,000 from January 6th to today. As you can tell by how many plastic babies we've used.

CORNISH: And whoever finds the plastic figure in their slice has to bring the next King Cake.

Haydel says business is up almost 25 percent this year, because more people are sharing the tradition. And his is one of the few city bakeries that wasn't wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. HAYDEL: The King Cake, this year, I think, is going to mean different things to different people. For people that are displaced, it's a taste of home. For the people who saw the devastation on TV, it's a way to support the city. For New Orleanians that are thankful that their houses weren't destroyed, it's a way to send a little bit of New Orleans out and say, hey, we're still here.

CORNISH: Normally Haydel calls temp agencies so he can triple his staff for the Mardi Gras season, but this year he says they had no workers to send out. Two of his employees are staying in FEMA trailers in his parking lot. Because the bakery only has about 5,000 baking trays, everyone is working double time to meet the demand. They've sold more than 30,000 King Cakes since the start of the year, and expect to do another 15,000 to 20,000 by Fat Tuesday.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: Check out a colorful King Cake and hear how it's made at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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