Far from Bourbon Street, we desert dwellers limit our thinking of Carnival to one night a year, the night of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. If you haven't been to the Big Easy for Carnival, the celebration is easily reduced to a night to feast New Orleans style, imbibe without restraint, wear gaudy green, purple and gold colored beads, don a masque and slice into a King Cake to see if you won the prize.
Carnival begins on January 6th, Twelfth Night, and lasts until Ash Wednesday, a fast day. Traditions for Carnival date back to the first celebrations of the feast of the Epiphany and are loaded with meaning. Historians tell us early Christian leaders absorbed pagan rituals of feasting, drinking and a time of disguise into the holiday.
Part of the pagan practice was to choose a king for a day, by placing a bean or a pea representing fertility, a good harvest, health and prosperity into food. The winner of the bean would become King for a year, which sounds like fun, but at the end of the year, the King may have been sacrificed- part of the tradition Christians wisely dispensed with.
more on King cake history and where to buy in Phoenix
French and Spanish settlers brought the religious feast and celebration associated with Carnival to New Orleans. Marked by Bal masques, parades and a special cake decorated like a jeweled crown. In European countries King cake appears at the start of the holiday in January. Americans associate the sweet cake with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), although in New Orleans it is featured all during Carnival.
Over time, the bean has been replaced by nuts, coins, ceramic and now plastic babies. Like many holidays rooted in religious celebrations, its commercial potential has taken over.
Bakeries often mount the plastic baby on top of the cake for the customer to hide (chipped teeth or choking=law suit) at their own risk. If you win the prize tradition dictates you buy the next King cake or host the next Carnival party.
Take note for next year, Essence Bakery Cafe in Tempe and Le Chalet in Glendale had Gateau des Rois, the French version, for Twelfth Night in January. Here is where to find King cake in the Phoenix area for your Mardi Gras celebration:
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AJ's Fine Foods-all locations
Order 24 hours in advance, preferred
Order 48 hours in advance
Almond or raspberry filling
Order 48-72 hours in advance
Iced and sugared, yeast dough, cream cheese filling
$38 -serves 16 or $48 -serves 25
If you want to make your own King Cake, check out our Thrifty Cook post on the topic.