In New Orleans, demand for king cakes — a Mardi Gras traditional treat — surges

 It's Carnival season in New Orleans and that means the lines outside local bakeries are long and the pace inside is brisk as employees attempt to keep up with customer demand for king cakes—those brightly colored seasonal pastries that have exploded in popularity over the past few years.

“Mardi Gras is our busiest time of the year,” says David Heddle Jr. of Heddle Bakery. He estimates that king cake sales generate about half of the bakery's income in the few short weeks between Christmas and Lent.

Behind her are racks holding dozens of freshly baked cakes ready to be wrapped. Nearby, workers are whipping up batter in huge mixers, rolling out lengths of dough, braiding and shaping them into rings and popping them into ovens.

It's a similar scene at Adrian's Bakery in the city's Gentilly neighborhood, where Adrian Darby Sr. estimates that king cakes make up 40% of his business. "Without Mardi Gras, you know, you have to make cuts, and you don't want to do that. You have full-time employees and you want to maintain that."

Food historian Liz Williams says that king cake culture has its roots in the Saturnalia celebration of ancient Rome, when a cake was baked with the bean and whoever got a slice with the bean was considered king for a day. .

Over the centuries the traditions evolved and were adapted into European pre-Lenten festivals that evolved into modern Mardi Gras traditions.

According to Williams, growth hasn't stopped. King cakes in New Orleans were once uniform and simple – a ring of lightly sweetened brioche topped with purple, green and gold sugar. Instead of beans, small baby dolls – first made of porcelain, now of plastic – were baked inside.

"There was really no variation from bakery to bakery," Williams said. But by the 1970s changes were taking place. Some bakers began using Danish-style pastry flour. Some began filling their king cakes with cream cheese or fruit preserves.

The popularity of this treat grew from one Mardi Gras season to the next, amid parades and colorful floats, costumed revelers, and the general frenzy of partying in the streets. Years ago, Williams said that king cake was probably eaten a few times a year, perhaps during a king cake party during the carnival season.

Now, Williams said, Mardi Gras season means almost daily king cake consumption for some people. "People will pick up the king cake and take it to work, and whoever gets the baby has to bring a cake the next day, so people are eating it all the time."

Still, this isn't year-round binge-watching fun. Tradition holds that king cake should not be eaten before Carnival season begins on January 6 nor after Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – which falls on February 13 this year.

The popularity of the king cake was evident on a recent morning at Manny Randazzo's bakery in New Orleans, where a line of more than 60 people stretched down the street. Customer Adrienne LeBlanc loaded king cakes in the back of an SUV for friends and family in New Orleans and beyond.

"Some of them are going to go to Houston, some of them are going to go to Mississippi," LeBlanc said. “And some people will stay right here in New Orleans.”

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