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Discover King Cakes from Around The Globe

2022-01-06   ◆   3 minutes read

Many countries have their version of the traditional King Cakes. You might have heard of Bolo Rei, Portugal’s own take on this dessert. Or Rosca De Reyes, Mexico’s King Cake served during El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos. Whichever it may be, you can find this royal cake across the globe. Let’s discover the rich and deep history of those Cakes. Where did it actually originate from? And how did this cake travel around the world?

king cake with frangipane
King’s Cake with frangipane (Thobors Bakery)

The History of King Cakes

The origins of King Cakes began during the Roman times, where people celebrated the festival of Saturn Feasts (Saturnalia video). The Saturn Feasts were held between the end of December until the beginning of January. This tradition is celebrated because of the Roman ties to Saturn, a Chthonic (i.e., related to the underground) agricultural Greek God. In honour of Saturn, the God of seed, cakes were prepared to celebrate the harvest. The highlight of this festivity was the act of role reversal: a slave would become a “king” for the day. The “king” of the day will have all of the rights and power to do as they please before they are subject for execution, or by returning back to their regular life. 

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, the name “King Cakes” became a part of the festival of Epiphany (January 6), the Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. Now, this tradition is honoured all around the world, with each of their own take to this custom.

king cake
King’s Cake (Pâtisserie La Cigogne)

King Cakes Across the Globe

  • France: France’s very own King Cake is named as “la galette des rois”. This bread traces back its origins in the 14th Century, when this traditional cake was served during the Epiphany holiday. The cake is made of a cream puff pastry stuffed with a luscious almond cream filling. Don’t eat this dessert too fast! You might bite too hard on the small porcelain figure tucked inside. And if you do, you’ll be able to become a king or queen for the day!
King Cakes Blog Image. Image du blogue des galettes de roi.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras King Cake
  • New Orleans (US): The King Cake tradition was brought to New Orleans by the French settlers in 1870. Soon after, this pastry quickly became one of New Orleans’ local specialties, especially during Mardi Gras. The King Cake resembles an oval braided bread, coloured in white icing and sugar sprinkles. The colours of the New Orleans’ King Cake pay tribute to Mardi Gras. Each sprinkle may be either green (faith), purple (justice) and gold (power). However, this cake is more similar to the Spanish King Cake than the French one. Just like most King Cakes, there is a trinket (plastic baby) hidden inside each confection for the chance to become a king.
  • Portugal: The Bolo Rei is a traditional Portuguese King Cake prepared during the month of December until the day of Epiphany. The Bolo Rei first appeared in Portugal in 1829, when Confeitaria Nacional opened its doors as the Portuguese monarchy’s official bakery. The Portuguese King Cake takes its roots from France’s “galette des rois”. It is a ring-shaped bread, but it is often topped with candied fruits and nuts. A coin, a trinket or a bean would be stuffed inside for a lucky person to find. Find this surprise and you’ll bear good fortune for the rest of the year! If you want to learn more about the Bolo Rei and other Christmas desserts, read our blog on International Desserts for Christmas
galette des rois
Galette des Rois (Goûter)
  • Mexico: In Mexico, their King Cake is called “Rosca De Reyes”. They serve this bread during El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day) to honour the three kings who paid a visit when Jesus was born. The soft, ring-shaped bread is sweet, and symbolizes the king’s crown as well as God’s love. Inside, you can find a baby Jesus figurine. Those who are lucky enough to bite into this piece are said to have good fortune for the rest of the year!
bulgarian pitka bread
Bulgarian Pitka Bread
  • Bulgaria: The pita, or pitka, is Bulgaria’s take on the traditional King Cake. It is mostly served on Christmas Eve and other occasions such as weddings and festivals. During Christmas Eve, every housewife prepares a pita in hopes to bring prosperity to their harvest and cattle, and above all, good fortune for their family members.  The phyllo dough cake is filled with soft cheese. The fortunate ones may find written fortune inside the cake. 
  • Greece and Cyprus: The Vasilopita is a Greek King Cake that is traditionally served on New Year’s Day to commemorate the life of Saint Basil (Church Father who preserved the Orthodox faith in the face of the Arian heresy). Vasilopita is prepared with various types of dough, it mostly depends on the region and family traditions.  It is generally served at the first week of the year for health and success. Once the Vasilopita is prepared, a coin is implanted in the base of the cake.
king cake with blueberry frangipane
King’s Cake with blueberry frangipane (Boulangerie Le Toledo)

What’s the Common Denominator?

King Cakes around the world are pretty similar. Most of these cakes have one thing in common: They all have a small trinket or figurine hidden inside the cake. These could either be a bean, a coin, a nut, or a tiny baby figurine. Most importantly, whoever finds the special surprise becomes a “king” for the day, or is said to have good fortune throughout the year.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be a king for the day? Dessert Advisor got your back! Your wish is our command. Head on to your local bakery shop and look for a King Cake near you.

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