King cakes are part of the Carnival tradition

King cakes are staple of the Carnival season on the Coast.
King cakes are staple of the Carnival season on the Coast. SUN HERALD/FILE

Your Carnival trivia question of the day: What has a party baked inside it?

Answer: The king cake.

The party maker is a little plastic baby, usually no bigger than an inch and hidden inside the cake. Long-standing tradition dictates whoever eats the slice of cake with the baby in it becomes a king or queen for the day.

The best part, though, is the finder also receives a year of good luck.

So what will a day of rule and a year of luck cost you? The price is you get to buy the next day’s king cake.

The pastries range from about $6 for the small basic pastries to about $18 for the larger, filled cakes — or more if you go for very large cake and special fillings.

The king cake maxim is no two are alike, so this sweet comes in many sizes and flavors. The fillings and flavors start with basic cinnamon and move up to cream cheese, fruit spreads and nuts. The doughs vary from coffee cake and bread textures to flaky French crusts.

Although king cakes have tempted Americans at least 140 years, it took the food fanatacism of the last quarter of the 20th century to bring it to today’s popularity. Translation: Just about every bakery sells them, be it homespun, chain grocery, coffee shop, or even gas station quick stop.

Of course, all genuine king cakes have the requisite baby, which is the Americanization of two Old World traditions. The oval, crown-shaped cakes we eat today are traced to New Orleans in 1870 when the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe formed.

Historically, Twelfth Night, also called Epiphany or Three Kings Day, represents when the three Wise Men found Baby Jesus, and comes 12 days after Christmas. For centuries, Christians around the world have celebrated with special foods and those traditions were brought to America by settlers.

Most histories say the French brought the idea of a crown-shaped cake to represent the three kings or wise men, and the Spanish brought the idea of choosing a Twelfth Night king and queen.

The merging of the two customs gave birth to the king cake as we now know it. In that 1870 New Orleans celebration, Twelfth Night Revelers served a giant cake in which was hidden a golden bean that would determine the queen. Instead of being courteously offered to the women, the cake serving became a free-for-all and the bean was lost.

Order came the next year and the idea slowly spread. At first the cake was a once-a-year Epiphany treat but American excess stepped in. Now, the first cakes appear on Epiphany and are baked until Mardi Gras Day.

As for the bean, it eventually became a baby but histories are murky as to when and why. Some speculate the doll symbolizes Baby Jesus.

In the 1930s in New Orleans, a china baby doll began appearing in the king cakes, too big to swallow but with breakage problems. Plastic babies came to the rescue, but all these years later you still hear traditionalists refer to “finding the bean.”

This story was originally written by former staff features writer and columnist Kat Bergeron and has been published in various forms over the years.