A king cake, also known as a three king's cake, is a cake associated in many countries with Epiphany. 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. After the cake is cut, whoever gets the fève wins a prize. Modern fèves can be made out of other materials, and can represent various objects and people.
The three king's cake takes its name from the Biblical Magi who are also referred to as the three kings. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany (also known as "Three King's Day") celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. 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 three king's cake originated in the Middle Ages in Europe from whence French settlers brought it to colonial America. It often includes a statue of the Christ Child and it is believed that the individual who discovers it will have good fortune. The three king's cake is consumed throughout Epiphanytide until the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday.
In northern France, Quebec, and Belgium it is called galette des rois in French or koningentaart in Flemish. 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. 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.
A 2014 survey reported that 85 per cent of French people celebrated the Epiphany with the cake, with nine per cent of the population enjoying more than five sittings. Sixty-eight per cent confessed to rigging the cake so that children found the fève.
The German and Swiss Dreikönigskuchen 'Three king cake' are shaped like wreathes or rounds, and uses an almond as the fève.
Bolo-rei, (lit. 'king cake') is a traditional Portuguese cake eaten from the beginning of December until Epiphany.
The recipe is derived from the French galette des rois which found its way to Portugal during the 1800s when Confeitaria Nacional opened as the Portuguese monarchy's official bakery in 1829.
The cake is round with a large hole in the centre, 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 faba bean, and tradition dictates that whoever finds the fava has to pay for the cake next year.
The roscón de reyes is celebrated in Spain and other Hispanic countries, such as Mexico. 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.
The tradition of placing a bean, candy or figurine of the Child Jesus inside the cake is followed. 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 or host a party that day.
The "crown of the Almudena" (Spanish: corona de la Almudena) is a variation of the Spanish roscón associated to Madrid. In 1978, the Madrid confectioners held a contest for a new sweet representing the city and the winner was a smaller roscón without liquor or lemon or orange peel or orange blossom water. Instead it is covered with an orange-juice syrup, so the final taste is similar. It has no prices or beans in the dough. It is sold around 9 November, the day of Our Lady of Almudena, patron saint of Madrid. It is usually sold with a cardboard crown in the hole.
The Twelfth Cake, Twelfth-night cake, or Twelfth-tide cake 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 - also known as the Lord or Lady of Misrule. 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.
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: "...to 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."
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, 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.
In the American South, particularly Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region, king cake is associated with Mardi Gras and is served during Carnival and year round. It may have been introduced by Basque settlers in 1718, or by the French in 1870.
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.
Cakes may also be filled with cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry. The "Zulu King Cake" has chocolate icing with a coconut filling.
Traditionally, a small porcelain baby, symbolizing Jesus, is hidden in the king cake and is a way for residents of New Orleans to celebrate their Christian faith. The baby symbolizes luck and prosperity to whoever finds it. That person is also responsible for purchasing next year's cake or hosting the next Mardi Gras party. Bakers have recently been placing the baby outside of the cake to avoid liability for any choking hazard.
In 2009 the New Orleans Pelicans introduced the King Cake Baby as a seasonal mascot.
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.