King cake

A king cake, also known as a three kings cake, is a cake associated in many countries with Epiphany.[1] Its form and ingredients are variable, but in most cases a fève (lit.'fava bean') such as a figurine, often said to represent the Christ Child, is hidden inside.[2] After the cake is cut, whoever gets the fève wins a prize.[3][2] Modern fèves can be made of other materials, and can represent various objects and people.[4]

King cake
Part of a Louisiana-style king cake with the baby figurine on top
Region or stateFrance
Similar dishes
  • Jésuite
  • conversation tart


Le gâteau des Rois, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774 (Musée Fabre)

The three kings cake takes its name from the Biblical Magi, also referred to as the three kings.[5] In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany (also known as "Three Kings Day") celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.[5] The Eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night, which is the last day of the Christmas season, and Epiphany Day itself commences the Epiphany season.

The origin of the cake tradition seems to be related to the Roman Saturnalia. These were festivals dedicated to the god Saturn so that the Roman people, in general could celebrate the longer days that began to come after the winter solstice. For these festivities, round cakes were made with figs, dates, and honey, which were shared equally among the commoners and slaves. As early as the 3rd century, a dry bean was inserted inside the sweet, and the lucky one who got it was named king of kings for a short time established in advance.

Later, Spanish and French settlers brought it to America.[5] It often includes a figurine, and it is believed that the individual who discovers it will have good fortune.[2][5] In some regions, the three kings cake is consumed throughout Epiphanytide until the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday.[5]

Regional variants

French-speaking countries and regions

Northern French style galette des rois
Southern French style gâteau des rois

In northern France, Quebec, Luxembourg and Belgium it is called galette des rois in French or koningentaart in Flemish Dutch. In most of France it is a puff pastry filled with frangipane.

A paper crown is included with purchased cakes to crown the "king" or "queen" who finds the "fève" or bean hidden inside the cake. To ensure a random distribution of the pieces, the youngest person is to place themselves under the table and name the recipient of each piece as they are cut.[6] When store-bought, the fève can be a tiny porcelain figurine of a religious character or, nowadays, a figurine referencing pop-culture or popular cartoons.

German-speaking countries

The German and Swiss Dreikönigskuchen 'three kings cake' are shaped like wreathes or rounds, and uses an almond as the fève.[7]


Bolo-rei (lit.'king cake') is a traditional Portuguese cake eaten from the beginning of December until Epiphany.[8]

The recipe is derived from the French galette des rois which found its way to Portugal during the 1800s when Confeitaria Nacional[9] opened as the Portuguese monarchy's official bakery in 1829.[10]

The cake is round with a large hole in the centre,[11] resembling a crown covered with crystallized and dried fruit.

It is baked from a soft, white dough, with raisins, various nuts and crystallized fruit. Also included is the dried fava bean, and tradition dictates that whoever finds the fava has to pay for the cake next year.[12]

Spanish-speaking countries

Traditional plain "Roscón de Reyes".
A Spanish (Castellón, Valencia region)"Roscón de Reyes" with whipped cream.

The Roscón de Reyes is eaten in Spain, Latin America and the United States. Recipes vary from country to country and between cultures but tend to be similar. It generally has an oval shape due to the need to make cakes large enough for large groups. For decoration, figs, quinces, cherries, or dried and candied fruits are often, but not exclusively, used.[13] The tradition of placing a bean, candy or figurine inside the cake is followed that dinners find in their slice.

In Spain consists on a sweet brioche dough aromatised with orange blossom water and decorated with slices of candied or crystallized fruit of various colors. It can be filled with whipped cream, cream, almond paste or others. The figurine traditionally represents one of the Three Wise Men Biblical Magi. A dry broad bean is also introduced inside the roscón. It is tradition that whoever finds the bean pays for the roscón.

In central and South America the figurine represents the Child Jesus. The figurine of the baby Jesus hidden in the bread represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from Herod the Great's Massacre of the Innocents. Whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine is blessed and must take the figurine to the nearest church on Candlemas Day[14] or host a party that day.[15]

United Kingdom

The Twelfth Cake, Twelfth-night cake, or Twelfth-tide cake[16][7] was once popular in the United Kingdom on Twelfth Night. It was frequently baked with a bean hidden in one side and a pea hidden in the other; the man/lord finding the bean became King for the night, while the woman/lady finding the pea became the Queen[17] – also known as the Lord or Lady of Misrule.[18] Earlier, in the time of Shakespeare, there was only a Lord of Misrule, chosen by the hidden bean, reflected in Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night.[19]

Samuel Pepys recorded a party in London on Epiphany night 1659/1660, and described the role the cake played in the choosing of a "King" and "Queen" for the occasion: " my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mothers, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being still a great frost."[20]

Although still occasionally found in the United Kingdom, as the Industrial Revolution curtailed the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas during the Victorian era,[21] the cake declined in popularity to be replaced by the Christmas cake. 18th century actor Robert Baddeley's will bequeathed £3 per annum to serve wine, punch and a Twelfth Night cake to the performers of the Drury Lane Theatre in the green room each Twelfth Night; the ceremony of the "Baddeley Cake" has remained a regular event, missed only 13 times in over 200 years, during wartimes or theatre closures.[22]

United States

Baby figure popularly used in Louisiana (U.S.) king cake

In Louisiana and parts of the Gulf Coast region historically settled by the French, king cake is associated with Mardi Gras and is traditionally served from Epiphany until Carnival.[23] and recently year-round.[24] It may have been introduced by Basque settlers in 1718,[25] or by the French in 1870.[26]

It comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough. It may be topped with icing or sugar, which may be colored to show the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.[23]

Cakes may also be filled with cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry. The "Zulu King Cake" has chocolate icing with a coconut filling.[27]

Traditionally, a small porcelain baby,[28] symbolizing Jesus, is hidden in the king cake and is a way for residents of New Orleans to celebrate their Christian faith.[29] The baby symbolizes luck and prosperity to whoever finds it. That person is also responsible for purchasing next year's cake[30] or hosting the next Mardi Gras party.[27][31] Bakers have recently been placing the baby outside of the cake to avoid liability for any choking hazard.[32]

In 2009 the New Orleans Pelicans introduced the King Cake Baby as a seasonal mascot.[33] The New Orleans Zephyrs also played as the Baby Cakes for a few seasons before relocating.


A similar tradition exists in Greece and Cyprus under the form of Vasilopita (lit.'king's cake', but also 'Basil's cake'). It is traditionally served on 1 January, the feast day of Saint Basil of Caesarea, and not for Epiphany; therefore, it not linked with the Biblical Magi.

See also


  1. Okholm, Trevecca (21 July 2020). The Grandparenting Effect: Bridging Generations One Story at a Time. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-7252-5484-8.
  2. Eliza Barclay: Is That a Plastic Baby Jesus in My Cake, National Public Radio from 2012-2-17(englisch)
  3. "History of King Cakes". New Orleans Showcase.
  4. Papadopoulos, Madina (3 February 2016). "A Short History of King Cake's Long History". Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  5. Kostelny, Laura (8 February 2021). "Here's Everything You Need to Know About King Cakes". Country Living. Retrieved 13 March 2021.
  6. Philippe, Didier (2003). Petit lexique des fêtes religieuses et laïques. Paris: Albin Michel. p. 42. ISBN 978-2-22613-631-2.
  7. Alan Davidson, ed., The Oxford Companion to Food, 1st ed., ISBN 0192115790, s.v. 'Twelfth Night cake', p. 814
  8. A Portuguese Christmas Retrieved 12 August 2013
  9. Bolo-Rei: The King of Portuguese Christmas Cakes Retrieved 12 August 2013
  10. The Battle for Lisbon’s best pastry Archived 2014-11-14 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 12 August 2013
  11. A Foodie’s Guide to Christmas in Europe Retrieved 12 August 2013
  12. Bolo Rei Portuguese Kings Cake – A treat for your Christmas table recipe Retrieved 12 August 2013
  13. "Rosca de Reyes Recipe (Kings Day Bread)". My Latina Table. 2019-01-04. Retrieved 2020-01-09.
  14. . The name Candlemas is derived from the use of candles on liturgical observances, representing the light of Christ presented to the world (John 1:9).
  15. "Happy Candlemas! ¡Feliz Día de la Candelaria!". CancunSafe. NeuMedia. Retrieved 2 March 2011.
  16. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st edition, 1916, s.v.
  17. Macclain, Alexia (4 January 2013). "Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, a Bean, and a King -". Smithsonian Libraries. Retrieved 10 January 2018. According to the 1923 Dennison's Christmas Book, "there should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake…" The Twelfth Night Cake has a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes King for the night while the woman who finds a pea in her slice of cake becomes Queen for the night.
  18. Lawrence, Anne (December 9, 2016). "Christmas 2016: Twelfth Cake". Reading History. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  19. Dobson, Michael (15 March 2016). "Festivity, dressing up and misrule in Twelfth Night". British Library. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  20. Diary of Samuel Pepys
  21. Baldock, James (26 Dec 2016). "Sea swimming, wassailing and minced lamb – 11 fun things you can do between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night". Metro. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  22. Ewbank, Anne (5 January 2019). "How £100 Bought an Obscure British Actor 224 Years of Cake and Fame". Gastro Obscura. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  23. Layla Eplett (2014-03-04). "Three Men and a Baby: A Brief History of King Cakes". Scientific American, Blog Network.
  24. "How to Celebrate Twelfth Night in New Orleans". 2 January 2017. Retrieved 2017-01-07.
  25. Byrn, Anne (2016). American Cake: From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes. p. 18. ISBN 9781623365431. OCLC 934884678.
  26. "Randazzo's Camellia City Bakery". Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  27. Stanonis, Anthony J.; Wallace, Rachel (2018). "Tasting New Orleans: How the Mardi Gras King Cake Came to Represent the Crescent City". Southern Cultures. 24 (4): 6–23. doi:10.1353/scu.2018.0043. S2CID 150226732.
  28. Gladys L. Knight (2014). Pop Culture Places: An Encyclopedia of Places in American Popular Culture. p. 568. ISBN 978-0313398827.
  29. "History". King Cake.
  30. "History of King Cakes". New Orleans Showcase.
  31. Gaudet, Marcia (2003). "The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana". In Gaudet, Marcia; McDonald, James C. (eds.). Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 48–57. ISBN 1-57806-529-1.
  32. "All Hail the King Cake". Epicurious.
  33. Johnson, Richard (18 February 2017). "What is that terrifying NBA All-Star mascot in New Orleans this weekend?". Retrieved 11 January 2021.
  34. Hasluck, Margaret M. (1927). "The Basil-Cake of the Greek New Year". Folklore. 38 (2): 143–177. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1927.9718380. JSTOR 1256522.
  35. Gregory S. Aldrete, Alicia Aldrete, The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us?, ISBN 144111663X, p. 84


  • 1991. Tradiciones Mexicanas. Pg 22, 31. Mexico, D.F., Ed. Diana S.A. de C.V., ISBN 968-13-2203-7
  • 1998. Fiestas de México. Pg. 76, Mexico, D.F., Panorama Editorial S.A. de C.V, ISBN 968-38-0048-3
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