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Mail-Order King Cakes

Published February 2018

How we tested

There are three key Mardi Gras foods: Fried chicken, king cake, and more king cake. Fried chicken is the ultimate portable parade food: Grab a bucket of Popeye’s and plant yourself on St. Charles Avenue to watch the floats and marching bands go by. King cake, though, is Mardi Gras in food form.

Growing up in Louisiana, I ate slices of this jewel-toned cake for weeks straight every year, from January 6—the official start of the Mardi Gras season—to Fat Tuesday, which is February 13 this year and can fall anywhere from early February to early March. We ate king cake at home, in school, even after swim practice, when we’d exit the pool and get cake first, towels second. King cake was paramount. And delicious.

What Is King Cake?

Reportedly brought to New Orleans from France in the late 19th century, king cake is a celebratory, vibrant dessert often likened to brioche and cinnamon rolls, though some bakeries use a breakfast danish dough as the base. The cake is ring-shaped and topped with colored sugar, a nod to Mardi Gras’s close ties to Epiphany, which falls on January 6. Also known as Twelfth Night or the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany commemorates the three kings’ (or wise men’s) visit to baby Jesus. The ring-shaped cake symbolizes a crown honoring the kings, and the trifecta of purple, green, and gold sugar on top is meant to resemble jewels, with the colors representing justice, faith, and power, respectively. Inside the cake, there’s also usually a small plastic baby, which plays a key role in the Mardi Gras festivities (see "About That Little Plastic Baby").

But technical explanations aside, according to New Orleans food critic, radio host, and author Tom Fitzmorris, king cake is “a widespread excuse to have a party,” and the embedded trinket is at the center of it. “What you do with a king cake is you look out for that little plastic baby,” Fitzmorris said. “The one who has the baby inside his slice of king cake is required to give a party no later than a week from that moment. And then it keeps on going.” Fitzmorris even told us about a friend who used to make king cake with a baby in every slice, ensuring a Carnival season full of parties—and king cake.

Bringing King Cake Home

In an attempt to celebrate Mardi Gras from afar, I looked for a bakery selling king cake in Boston but came up empty-handed. I could have made one myself—my colleagues at Cook’s Country have developed a recipe—but nothing beats an authentic king cake from a Southern bakery. And while flying to the Crescent City for cake wouldn’t be completely out of character for me, I was happy to learn that mail-order options abound. Curious to find out more, I decided that an official tasting was in order and rounded up my colleagues (many uncertain what this baby-laden cake was all about) to help.

To narrow our options, we focused on traditional king cakes, a designation that comes with an asterisk—because if you ask New Orleanians to describe a “traditional” king cake, you’ll likely get two different answers. Some will tell you it's a bare-bones, brioche-like cake with only granulated sugar on top, sometimes referred to as a McKenzie-style cake in honor of the now-defunct (but still beloved) bakery that popularized it. Others will say the bread base should include cinnamon and be topped with icing and then sugar.

But one thing most people agree on is that traditional king cake is unfilled. (“Filled” cakes have an interior layer that can include cream cheese, berries, and apples, with increasingly daring bakers incorporating everything from bacon to boudin.) With that in mind, we selected seven classic, unfilled king cakes from some of the most popular bakeries in Louisiana and Mississippi. All were made by hand and baked to order, and they ranged in price from $45.99 to $69.95, including overnight shipping.

First Impressions

Our mail-order king cakes arrived as scheduled, despite a raging snowstorm. The smell of sugar filled our tasting lab as we opened each box, and while all the cakes had the classic oval shape, we immediately noted aesthetic differences. The colored sugars ranged from bold to pastel, everything from vivid emerald greens to rich marigolds and muted lavenders. One cake included almond slivers among its toppings, and another outlier skipped the traditional granulated sugar coating altogether in favor of purple, green, and gold sprinkles.

Two cakes arrived bare, with separate frosting and sugar packets for DIY application. Though it’s somewhat anticlimactic to unbox a plain, unadorned king cake, we had fun decorating the cakes ourselves. Following instructions, we easily assembled the cakes and were pleased with the eye-catching results. Most of the “fully dressed” king cakes were pretty, too, but not all. One cake, despite its perfectly dry box, looked like it had been left in a rainstorm; the colors were drastically faded. Another appeared almost airbrushed because the sugar had soaked into the surrounding icing.

Every cake came with a plastic baby. Some were baked directly into the cake, some were pressed into the cake’s underside, and others were kept separate for us to place ourselves. We didn’t have a strong preference for how the baby arrived, but we did make sure to warn our unwitting tasters (though the 1-inch-tall baby was hard to miss).

Let the Tasting Begin

We found that flavor varied significantly among our seven cakes, and tasters had clear preferences. Some king cakes stood out for their complexity, while others were one-note and lacked nuance. A few were pleasingly cinnamony, others citrusy. Our favorite cakes were rich and buttery-tasting, with noticeable but not overpowering cinnamon flavor.

The cakes varied in texture, too. Some were on the drier side, while others were doughy and seemed underbaked in sections. We didn’t mind a drier cake if it was balanced out with ample frosting, but our favorite cake outshone the rest: It was superbly light, fluffy, tender, and moist.

As for toppings, there was no such thing as too much frosting. Some glazes were thicker than others, but all were perfectly acceptable, even the one “sticky” cake that was more generously frosted than the rest. Tasters also appreciated cakes with plenty of granulated sugar, which provided a nice crunchy bite and good textural contrast to the creamy frosting and bready base.

Our Favorite Mail-Order King Cake

While we’d gladly eat any of these decadent creations, the cake from Joe Gambino’s Bakery ($65.78 for 12-15 servings, including overnight shipping) emerged as our clear winner. Tasters raved about its light, fluffy texture; moist bread base; and rich, buttery flavor with discernible but not overpowering cinnamon. We also had fun with the DIY element, which the bakery says ensures a nice visual presentation because it prevents the frosting and sugar from getting messy in transit.

And though Joe Gambino’s was our hands-down favorite, the “best” king cake is largely a matter of personal preference. Ultimately, we can recommend all the cakes in our lineup (two with reservations). So while the bakeries can’t deliver the Carnival experience itself—though some add in lagniappe like beads and doubloons—they can provide the ultimate authentic Mardi Gras food by mail.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled seven traditional king cakes, each purchased online via the bakery’s website, priced from $45.99 to $69.95, including shipping. All were baked and shipped the same day, for delivery the following day. (Every bakery had overnight shipping available, which we selected. Some also offered a lower-cost two-day shipping option.) Nutritional information and ingredients were taken from product labels when available, and prices include overnight shipping. Products are listed in order of preference.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*