Mardi Gras season is officially in full swing in New Orleans. Purple, gold and green wreaths adorn the doors, and inside homes, a king cake is at the center of each table. As soon as these distinctly New Orleans delicacies hit the bakery racks, the whole city knows it’s Carnival time. As a New Orleans newcomer, the question for me is which bakery has the best? I knew that New Orleanians are particular about their food and I found this is the case with their king cakes too.
“It’s what you grew up eating,” said Tricia Randazzo-Zornes, owner of Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery in Slidell, La. “It’s whatever your parents are doing. People know what they like to eat. They have a favorite king cake like they have a favorite restaurant.”
At least three of the bakeries claim theirs is the best king cake in the city, and so do their loyal base of customers. The bakery generally assessed to make the best king cakes for generations — McKenzie’s Bakery — closed in 2000, though its iconic neon sign still remains on Prytania Street. Some king cake aficionados claim no current bakery can measure up to McKenzie’s classic recipe adorned only with colored sugar. Tastee Donuts, a local bakery chain, bought the king cake recipe from McKenzie’s. Some prefer Tastee Donuts’ version, but many say it’s just not the same as the original and have moved on to find a new favorite.
Like McKenzie’s, Randazzo’s king cakes are an institution. The three Randazzo’s bakeries in the New Orleans area are each owned by a different member of the Randazzo family, which started its first bakery in 1965 in St. Bernard Parish. Every family member learned the trade from patriarch Manuel Randazzo and branched out to Slidell, Metairie and Covington, all suburbs of New Orleans. Randazzo’s in Slidell is only open during king cake season and offers unique flavors including a Turtle king cake (like the candy) and a cream-cheese, praline pecan king cake.
Of course, Randazzo’s Camellia City claims to be the best. After all, the Gambit Weekly named it the “best place in New Orleans to get a king cake” in 2009. They have also been featured on the Food Network. No other Randazzo’s bakery can say that, Tricia Randazzo-Zornes said.
But there are other contenders for the king cake crown. Haydel’s Bakery owner David Haydel Jr. said his bakery has perfected the king cake over the half century it has been open on Jefferson Highway, just outside the New Orleans city limits.
“We’ve perfected it over the past 50 years,” Haydel said. “Our most popular is the cinnamon coffee cake with the white icing and Mardi Gras colored sugar.” He and his staff expect to make about 52,000 king cakes this season for the shop and for customers who order from over the world.
Haydel said details set each bakery apart — the sprinkles versus the colored sugar, icing versus no icing. Haydel’s features a variety of flavors, including apple, cherry, lemon, German chocolate, praline pecan, strawberry cream cheese and pina colada. Like the Randazzos, Haydel takes pride in the fact that all the dough is hand-braided, just like his grandfather used to do it.
King cakes first appear in New Orleans on Jan. 6, or the Twelfth Night, also known as the Epiphany. This date marks the official start of the Mardi Gras season. Year-round and seasonal bakeries begin to churn out the traditional coffee cake dough, braid it into a large ring and then bake it for eager customers to devour.
The king cake has a long and rich history that originates in France in the Middle Ages, and is closely tied to the Christian celebrations surrounding Epiphany. Europeans of the Middle Ages placed a great deal of importance on the three magi, the gifts they bestowed on Jesus and what they represented in the Christmas story. Jan. 6 is supposedly the day that the magi arrived, and it was celebrated with parades of the three wise men and presents for the children.
The king cake was prepared in honor of the magi and shared with family and friends on the twelfth night. Hidden in every cake is a coin, a pea or, more recently, plastic infant. New Orleans bakeries almost always use tiny plastic babies. Whoever is served the piece with the baby is named king of the feast, and then must prepare the next year’s king cake and host the party.
Varied styles, always colorful
King cake decorations vary from bakery to bakery, and parish to parish (Louisiana’s version of counties). Some bakeries bake the purple, gold and green colored sugar right into the dough, others sprinkle it on top. Nowadays, most bakeries drizzle a white icing on top of every cake and sprinkle it with the dyed colored sugar. Purple, gold and green are the Mardi Gras colors that represent justice, power and faith, respectively.
Can’t find a king cake in your area? Try this recipe from Haydel’s. David Jr. says it might not be the exact recipe sold at his shop, but it’s close:
Haydel’s King Cake
- In a mixer at first speed, combine sugar, salt and shortening until well creamed. Add eggs and continue to cream.
- Dissolve the yeast in the milk and add the flavors. Once dissolved, add to creamed mixture and continue to mix.Add flour and mix until dough tightens. Remove from mixer and knead into a ball.
- Sprinkle some of the flour on top and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Allow the dough to rest for 1.5 hours. While the dough is resting, mix your colored sugars.
- Take one cup of sugar and your yellow food coloring. Mix by hand with a wire whisk in a metal bowl until the sugar turns yellow. Pour your yellow sugar into a separate bowl and put it off to the side. Repeat this process for the green, and then the purple.
- When the dough has rested, roll out into an oblong piece. Brush on canola oil covering the entire piece. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar liberally over the whole piece.
- Once the dough is covered with the cinnamon sugar and oil, fold it in half lengthwise. Cut into three strips and braid the dough.
- Gently roll the dough by starting at one end and working all the way down to the other end. This will make the dough a nice long piece that can then be shaped into a circle.
- Once shaped, place on a baking pan covered with a piece of parchment paper. Allow the dough to rest again until it doubles in size.
- Take a spoon and alternate sprinkling the three colored sugars on top of your circular piece of dough.
- Bake at 370 F for 12-15 minutes until the dough is golden brown.
Catherine Lyons is a writer in New Orleans.
Photo: Randazzo’s king cake by Tricia Randazzo-Zornes.