5 Pounds of King Cake, Zero Calories
A hefty new book showcases over 80 varieties of our favorite pastry.
Halleluiah! King cake lovers everywhere rejoice! The bible of our ubiquitous pastry has finally arrived. King cake obsession, so evident in New Orleans and much of the state has been building to a fevered frenzy for many years. Despite its overt popularity, it took Long Island native and first-time author Matt Haines to realize the cake’s definitive bible was long overdue. With stunning photos by Randy Krause Schmidt, “The Big Book of King Cake” weighs in at almost 5 pounds and meticulously covers this favorite seasonal treat from all angles.
Having lived in New Orleans for almost a decade, Haines found himself nursing a broken heart in 2017 after a breakup. His antidote was king cake, and he vowed to sample every version available. He didn’t quite make his goal but did manage to consume more than 80 different varieties before Fat Tuesday.
Eighty varieties? Most native New Orleanians over the age of 50 grew up believing that king cake began and ended with McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe’s version — a simple ring of brioche, dotted with candied cherries and decorated with crunchy purple, green and gold sugar. Imagine — no braid, no icing, not even a hint of cinnamon!
Today that simplicity seems impossible. From the dawn of the filled king cake to the outlandish savory versions that barely resemble the traditional, Haines leaves no stone unturned in his investigative reporting. Between the pages of “The Big Book of King Cake” even the most dedicated scholars of the topic will uncover surprising facts.
For example, most believe New Orleans king cake’s origins to be French, but Haines reveals the king cake has been around for millennia. It was an integral part of the Roman festival Saturnalia, complete with a bean baked inside to designate the lucky recipient as king or queen for the day, a tradition that persists today. Haines traces the bean’s progression through today’s plastic baby and beyond, an area where locals should take note. Over the last two-and-a-half centuries, the French féve (which translates as broad bean or favor) has developed such a cult following that enthusiasts, known as “fabophiles,” meet in Paris annually to sell and swap the tiny treasures at an international féve fair.
Fascinating historical tales aside, the most delicious feature of “The Big Book of King Cake” is the bakers themselves. From Louisiana legends like Cartozzo’s, where the filled king cake is said to have originated, to the Randazzo family, whose history requires a family tree to demystify, Haines covers them all. From coffee shops to donut destinations, from a bean-to-bar chocolatier to food truck operators, we learn their stories and vicariously taste their offerings. Travelling through 10 different countries, Haines highlights our cake’s “international cousins,” covering obscurities like the Bulgarian banistsa and the vasilopita of Greece and Cypress.
Although pandemic restrictions canceled the official 2020 Mardi Gras, last year brought out inventive budding king cake entrepreneurs, resulting in a panoply of pop-ups ranging from vegan bakers to ice cream makers. Haines showcases over a dozen of the newcomers.
Perhaps the most compelling tale is of Nolita’s Martha Gilreath, for whom king cake has provided salvation. In 2018, Gilreath was a homeless addict, sleeping underneath the Crescent City Connection. After a turn in a South Carolina treatment center, she enrolled in the pastry program at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. Upon graduation, Gilreath plied her new trade in area restaurants while saving for her own business. Nolita was founded five days before Mardi Gras 2021, offering a “New Orleans classic king cake with a twist.” Purists will be reminded of the beloved McKenzie style cake, but Gilreath uses orange blossom and satsuma zest in her dough, finishing the brioche rings with coarse, sparkly sugar she dyes herself.
If your king cake appetite is insatiable, here’s some good news. 2022 delivers one of the longest Carnival seasons possible with a full 53 days between King’s Day and Mardi Gras Day, so get to work. There are so many king cakes and so little time!
Author Matt Haines dedicated “The Big Book of King Cake” to Will Samuels, founder of the King Cake Hub who tragically passed away in late summer of last year. In 2022, Samuels’ widow, Jennifer, will carry on the family business, offering over 60 varieties at the Zony Mash Beer Project on Broad Street. King Cake Hub will also operate a new pop-up location at The Historic New Orleans Collection’s gift shop on Royal Street.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.