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What are king cakes? The Mardi Gras specialty is in high demand in NYC

Chef Olivier Dessyn's Mille-Feuille Bakery & Cafe has been busy pulling its galette de Rois (king cake) out of the oven since December.

King cake or galette des Rois are a

King cake or galette des Rois are a favorite way to celebrate the Ephiphany and Mardi Gras. Epicerie Boulud's Galette des Rois comes with a hidden trinket among its flaky pastry layers and rich frangipane. Photo Credit: Evan Sung/Evan Sung

You don't have to be in New Orleans to enjoy the traditional king cake during Carnival season. 

The two-month period between Epiphany (Jan. 6) and Mardi Gras (March 5) is when the cakes are most in demand, especially at chef Olivier Dessyn's Mille-Feuille Bakery & Cafe, which has been busy pulling its galette de Rois out of the oven since December.

"People have been calling like crazy," said Matthew Parker, an employee at Mille-Feuille. "They were in very high demand before [Epiphany] came and after. It's beyond delicious."

What is a king cake exactly?

There are two types of king cake — the traditional French galette des Rois, which is typically made to celebrate Epiphany (Three Kings Day), and the colorful king cake — baked to celebrate Mardis Gras. Both types hold a small figure that one must discover while eating it.

The galette typically holds a small crown or bean figurine while the king cake is baked with a small baby figure. The rule with both cakes is the same — whoever finds the figure is "crowned" "king" or "queen" for the day.

How are they made?

A typical French galette is made with a top and bottom puff pastry, which sandwich frangipane, a custard-y filling. Mille-Feuille's Galette des Rois is made with almond cream and frangipane inside a flaky puff pastry and includes a small porcelain charm that is baked inside. 

“What is really funny is after January, we don’t talk galette anymore,” said Stephanie Liot, a spokeswoman for the bakery. “And shops won’t sell it in spring, summer or fall, even though the buttery crust puff dough is wonderful and the frangipane — the almond, custard cream and rum flavor — is so delicious. We are programmed to forget it and remember mid-December.”

Most French bakeries sell the galette during January, but some like Mille-Feuille sell it until Mardi Gras.

The king cake associated with Mardi Gras is more of a brioche that is most popular in New Orleans, Loit said.

To celebrate the fun that comes with Carnival, the king cake is usually baked as a Bundt cake (there’s no middle) and is splashed with frosting before it is covered with royal purple, gold and green sprinkles. Instead of a bean, a baby figurine is placed inside.

Why a baby?

The figurine, which is either plastic or porcelain, is meant to symbolize the baby Jesus, whether it’s a bean or a baby. But in recent years, the baby and bean have come to symbolize luck and prosperity. 

"We buy a large galette to share and we place it on the table," Liot said. "A charm — a little fève (bean) in porcelain — is placed into the galette. The youngest person of the family has to go under the table and close his eyes and tells who gets the next slice."

Where can I find one in the city?

You can always check your local French patisserie, but many stop selling their galettes after January. As for the New Orleans king cake, they're a little trickier to find:

  • Mille-Feuille Bakery's Galette des Rois comes in two sizes at $24.90 and $39.90, respectively. They're available through March 5.
  • Épicerie Boulud carries Galette des Rois with a hidden trinket among the flaky pastry layers and rich frangipane for $42, starting on Feb. 26.
  • Brooklyn Kolache offers king cake rolls, which are made from the company's slow rise yeast dough, sprinkled with a thin layer of brown sugar, cinnamon and sweet cream cheese filling before they are rolled into buns. They're topped with sweet cream cheese glaze and sprinkled again with colored sanding sugar. Each one is $4 and they're made in limited batches every day, but you can order them in advance at brooklynkolacheco.com through March 5.
  • In the spirit of a king cake, Billy's Bakery's four Manhattan locations are serving a king cake cupcake made with cinnamon batter with cream cheese frosting and Mardi Gras-inspired royal icing topped with a small baby trinket for $3.95 each. 

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