It's good to be king
In party-loving New Orleans, the first week of January begins the king cake season, a traditional prelude to the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations.
Between Jan. 6, Three King’s Day, and Feb. 28, Fat Tuesday, New Orleans bakers produce thousands of king cakes, decorated in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
Jake Tortorice, who has been king of Rao’s since he bought the bakery in 1998, said his business makes around 8,000-9,000 king cakes chain wide for Mardi Gras and ships out around 2,000 annually.
“We start on the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, and we’ll have them in our stores all through Mardi Gras,” Tortorice said. “We don’t keep them on display year-round, but we ship them all year. It’s good for us. It’s a simple product to make, and we can make them pretty quick. We’re able to concentrate on one or two products, which makes it easy on us versus Christmas when you’ve got a gamut of products and it takes all the soldiers you can get to run your stores.”
Hidden in the coffee-cake dough of the king cake is a plastic baby. Custom dictates that whoever finds it must give the next king cake party.
“You’re treated like a king for that day, but it also means you have to buy the next king cake,” Tortorice said.
Hundreds of king cake parties are held in New Orleans every year. Some Mardi Gras organizations even use this tradition to choose their queen.
“The baby is a sign of the Christ child. … Twelve days after Christmas, the wise men came to see Baby Jesus and they bore gifts, and each of the gifts stood for something. Each of the colors on the king cake stand for something,” he said.
The colors of purple, green and gold first appeared on the cakes after 1872, when the Rex Krewe, one of the oldest known Mardi Gras organizations, selected those colors for its opening parade. The colors took on symbolic meanings — purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
These colors can be seen throughout Rao’s Bakery as the business sets the mood for the Mardi Gras holiday. The bakery also offers cookies, cupcakes and other sweets decorated with the Mardi Gras colors and even king cake flavored coffee. Rao’s also offers chicken and sausage gumbo, a popular Cajun dish, during the Mardi Gras season.
“We’ll run the gumbo just about every day all the way until Fat Tuesday. Then we’ll back off and go once a week after that. We just tie it in with the Louisiana theme. We theme a lot of things around Mardi Gras,” Tortorice said. “We decorate our stores for Mardi Gras starting Jan. 6. … There’s anticipation of the parades and the parties. It represents a good time our employees get really excited about.”
The Italian rice balls, or arancini, are also a hot item and pair great with the gumbo. They are made with seasoned ground beef, rolled in rice, breaded and deep-fried.
Rao’s has been offering king cakes for the last 25-30 years, Tortorice said, but only recently began offering a mini-king cake, which the bakery calls the Petit Lafite.
“This is the first year we’ve offered a flavor for the Petit Lafite,” he said. “We used to just do a cinnamon, but because they did so good, we decided to incorporate an extra flavor — strawberry.”
The cake offers customers who might not want to spend as much — or eat as much — a chance to celebrate just the same.
“And it comes with a baby inside just like the regular-sized king cakes,” Tortorice said.
According to New Orleans Showcase’s website, the traditional king cake is made from twisted strands of cinnamon dough, covered by poured sugar and sprinkled with purple, green and gold colored sugar.
“It’s a bread-like product,” Tortorice said. “The cinnamon is more like eating a cinnamon roll, glazed with icing and your sugars.”
Today, many additional varieties of king cake are also available by adding cream cheese or other fillings.
“My favorite is going to be one of the one’s with cream cheese. No doubt,” Tortorice said. “There’s much more flavor in it. It’s more moist.”
In addition to traditional cinnamon, Rao’s offers king cakes in strawberry cream cheese, blueberry cream cheese, and raspberry cream cheese flavors.
Chocolate lovers will appreciate Rao’s Voodoo king cake, which was featured in USA Today’s 2016 Best Mardi Gras King Cakes. USA Today had the following to say about the creation: “In Texas, Rao’s Bakery is beloved for the unique Voodoo king cake, made with cream cheese and chocolate chips and topped with chocolate and toasted coconuts.”
Occasionally competing seasons
The date of Mardi Gras changes every year because it’s connected to Easter, which can fall on any Sunday between March 23 and April 25. Mardi Gras is always scheduled to take place 47 days before Easter. This affects the amount of king cakes Rao’s sells, according to Tortorice, because sometimes Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day fall in the same week. For example, in 2016, Mardi Gras was Feb. 9 and Valentine’s Day was Feb. 14.
“When you call on two seasons in the same week, you’re not going to do as good,” Tortorice said. “People are usually only going to dip in their pocket one time. … This year it falls two weeks after Valentine’s Day, so we’ll have a great year for Mardi Gras.”
Rao’s celebrates its 76th year of business in 2017.
“And we hope to be here another 76,” Tortorice said.
Rao’s, at 2596 Calder Ave., is open Monday – Friday from 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. Be sure to visit the Crossroads Center location and the Baptist Hospital in Beaumont locations, as well as Rao’s in Nederland. For more info, call (409) 832-4342.