This time of year is king cake season in New Orleans. This starchy, sugary, often sticky, and totally scrummy sponge has its origins in the French gallette des rois, a treat for Twelfth Night to celebrate the visit of the three Magi to the baby Jesus. Like its French ancestor, New Orleans king cake comes with a baby, bean or coin hidden inside it, and the person who find this in their slice can claim to be king or queen for the day.
However, king cake has departed in style from galette des rois. In Paris these days, you’ll get a golden brown puff pastry tart with an almond filling, while in New Orleans you’re more like to find something akin to a brioche, often filled with Louisiana pecans and draped in sparkly icing.
Another difference between old and new world customs in this area is that gallette des rois is only eaten on Twelfth Night, while king cake is found in New Orleans from Twelfth Night until Lent – a.k.a carnival season. I always enjoy the series New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, runs on king cakes in the city during this time featuring a different bakery every day. And I nearly always find myself checking if they deliver to the UK…
Once I even tried to make king cake myself (see photo). I don’t think mine would bear comparison to one from the Crescent City, but I took it into work and my colleagues did gamely eat it.
I’ve never been in New Orleans at this time of year to sample the real thing, but I understand it’s customary for colleagues and friends there to take turns to buy cakes to share, with the “king” or “queen” being obliged to get the next one.
We don’t have an equivalent seasonal tradition here, but making cakes and biscuits all year round is surging in popularity in the UK, as shown by the huge viewing figures for TV show The Great British Bake-Off, which completed its fourth series this year featuring a particularly fabulous ex-colleague of mine who I think deserved to win.
I’m a huge fan of this TV show, and it’s due in part to watching it that I discovered a baking tradition Londoners can call their own, closely linked to a part of the city little more than a cupcakes’s throw from where I live.
Tottenham Cake, named after the north London neighbourhood whose name it bears, is a simple oblong sponge, topped with pale pink icing and cut into squares. Unlike king cake, it doesn’t have a particular season, and is available all year round. However, like king cake it does have its origins in religious belief.
Tottenham cake was first made by Quakers living in this area, then a rural settlement some distance from central London. The shade of the icing comes from their use of the fruit from the mulberry trees growing in the garden of their meeting house (which are still there) to colour it.
The confection fits with the Quakers’ egalitarian and community-focused way of life. Like king cake it’s traditionally baked by friends for each other, and often with children in mind, and its square shape means it’s easy to transport, divide evenly and eat.
What’s more, the’s recipe’s short list of simple, cheap ingredients and its straightforward method mean that, whether it’s made at home or by a bakery, Tottenham cake is a treat that everyone can afford, tuck into and enjoy – and whatever city you’re in and at whatever time of year, that’s surely the definition of a good bit of baking.