Why’s There a Plastic Toy Baby in New Orleans King Cake?

Hidden inside New Orleans king cake is a coveted prize in the form of a small figure of a baby

Have you ever heard of king cake? This sweet, circular pastry is beloved across the globe and is a staple in celebrations that welcome the new year.

Throughout the world, especially in countries where Catholicism is the predominant religion, you’ll see king cake show up in bakeries when January rolls around.

King cake is most often eaten on January 6 to celebrate Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night), the holiday that marks the arrival of the three wise men or kings in Bethlehem. It also appears during Carnival, which lasts from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday (which marks the beginning of Lent, a time when Catholics practice abstinence from indulgences, such as cake, for 40 days).

King cake looks and tastes a bit different depending on where in the world you enjoy it.

In Louisiana, for example, it’s made from a sweet, cake-like bread dough, which is twisted into a ring shape and decorated with green, gold, and purple-colored icing (these colors represent the values of faith, power, and justice) and sprinkles.

New Orleans king cake – Photo by Eric Wagner on Flickr

In France, the cake (known as galette des roi) is made from puff pastry and is filled with frangipane almond cream, fruit, or chocolate. On the other hand, in Spain, Latin America, and Portugal, king cake (known as rosca de reyes in Spanish or bolo rei in Portuguese) has more of a sweet bread texture and is topped with light icing and candied fruit.

La Galette des Rois: the French King Cake
rosca de reyes
Rosca de reyes, the traditional sweet bread eaten on January 6 in Spain, Mexico and other Latin American countries

Regardless of its ingredients and toppings, the cake is almost always shaped like a circle or oval (to represent a king’s crown). These cakes also share another common denominator: something is hidden inside.

King cake always contains some kind of trinket, usually a baby-shaped figurine (although in France, it’s more common to hide a bean in the cake). The person who finds the baby in their slice of cake then gets to be “king” for the day (and in Louisiana, they are also in charge of hosting the next year’s celebration).

King cake has been around for years. It’s believed to have originated in Old World Spain and France. Later, during the Middle Ages, it became associated with the Epiphany celebration.

This cake certainly is not a new dessert. However, the act of hiding a plastic baby in it, specifically, didn’t start until relatively recently in New Orleans.

In the 1950s, a bakery called McKenzie’s started baking baby trinkets into their king cakes. They started with porcelain babies and then later switched to plastic, which they sold separately from the cake for the purchaser to hide themselves.  

The baby-hiding practice is such an important part of Carnival and New Orleans culture that, each year, the New Orleans Pelicans unveil a King Cake Baby mascot during each season.

Are you interested in celebrating with a king cake next year? Even if you don’t live in a predominantly Catholic place, it’s still fairly easy to get your hands on one. 

There are tons of easy-to-follow recipes available online, such as this one. Just be sure to include your own baby!