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A Taste of Mardi Gras: The Return of the King Cake

New Orleans bakeries are racing to keep up with demand for king cake, a Mardi Gras treat. This cake from Haydel's Bakery is filled with strawberry cream cheese.
Audie Cornish, NPR
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New Orleans bakeries are racing to keep up with demand for king cake, a Mardi Gras treat. This cake from Haydel's Bakery is filled with strawberry cream cheese.
Bakery workers apply cinnamon and oil to the dough, then roll, braid and form it into a ring before baking.
Audie Cornish, NPR /
/
Bakery workers apply cinnamon and oil to the dough, then roll, braid and form it into a ring before baking.

King cake is a treat inextricably tied to the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. As many people return to the city from far-flung places, the Danish-like confection is flying off the shelves at bakeries such as Haydel's.

The staff is working extra hard to fill thousands of orders this week for the braided, cinnamon pastry topped with fondant icing and purple, green and gold sugar. Traditional cakes have no filling, but others are stuffed with goodies ranging from pineapple to cream cheese.

Mail orders are up this year, says manager David Haydel, whose family has owned the store for three generations. Katrina evacuees are shipping thank-you packages to people they stayed with after the storm. Displaced New Orleanians are ordering cakes for a Mardi Gras fix. Haydel says he expects to sell nearly 50,000 king cakes this year.

Haydel says the cake was originally eaten on Kings Day -- Jan. 6 -- in honor of the Magi, the three wise men of the Bible, who bore gifts for baby Jesus. But now, it's enjoyed throughout Mardi Gras season.

Traditionally, a bean was hidden in the cake to represent the Christ child. But over the past century, people have used porcelain babies and now plastic infant figures. Whoever finds the figure in their slice has to provide the next king cake.

This year, king cake may have special meaning. "For people that are displaced, it's a taste of home," says Haydel. "For the people that saw all the devastation on TV, it's a way to support the city."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.