The King Cake is a brioche-style cake traditionally made throughout the State of Louisiana during the weeks prior to Mardi Gras. Usually oval in shape, the King Cake is a bakery delicacy made from a rich Danish dough (which is a sweetened yeast bread...a cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry) and covered with a poured sugar topping decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras-colored sugars of purple (symbolizing Justice), green (symbolizing Faith) and gold (symbolizing Power). This colorful topping is representative of a jeweled crown in honor of the Three Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany (a word derived from the Greek meaning "to show"). Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night (i.e., January 6) is when the Carnival Season officially begins.
The King Cake tradition is believed to have begun with French settlers around 1870, who were themselves continuing a custom which dated back to Twelfth Century France, when a similar cake was used to celebrate the coming of the Magi twelve days after Christmas bearing gifts for the Christ Child. This celebration was also once known as King's Day. As a symbol of this Holy Day, a tiny plastic baby (symbolic of the baby Jesus) is placed inside each King Cake but in times gone past, the hidden items were usually coins, beans, pecans or peas.
Today, the cakes are baked in many shapes but originally, they were round to portray the circular route take by the Magi in order to confuse King Herod, whose army was attempting to follow the Wise Men so that the Christ Child could be killed. The origin of the modern King Cake can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when popular devotion during Christmas turned to the Three Wise Men. In 1871, the tradition of choosing the Queen of Mardi Gras was determined by who drew the prize within the cake. Today, such a find is still deemed to be a sign of good luck and it customary for the person who discovers the hidden plastic baby to host the next King Cake Party.