Mardi Gras: What is king cake?

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is marked by giant celebrations full of floats, costumes and food. And nothing is more traditional than snacking on a king cake during the annual festivities.

But what exactly is the tri-colored confection that makes an appearance at Mardi Gras celebrations across the country?

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King cake traces its origins back to 12th-century France, to something called "galette des rois," cake of the kings, consisting of puff pastry with a sweet filling and sometimes sprinkled with sugar. It was a way to celebrate the Epiphany or “King’s Day” — the day that the three wise men arrived to bestow gifts to baby Jesus. Eating the cake has long been a way to commemorate the holiday throughout Europe.

In the 1870s, this tradition made its way to New Orleans because of the city's French and Spanish roots — and as often happens in the Big Easy, the recipe evolved.

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Modern king cakes are often doughy and slightly sweet, made with think layers of pastry dusted with cinnamon sugar. It's bready, too — kind of like a cross between a coffee cake and a brioche. Most versions are then typically topped with icing and tri-colored sugar: purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power.

As part of the tradition, a plastic or porcelain baby is placed inside the cake, and the person who finds it is tasked with bringing the king cake the following year.

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Not all king cakes are created equal, though. Some spots in the Big Easy offer their own over-the-top takes on the classic dessert.

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But regardless of how you take your slice, make sure you don’t make these mistakes while celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.