With Texas and Louisiana being neighbors, there are many natural cultural exchanges between the two states, but none are more festive than Mardi Gras and its signature pastry, the king cake.
Rooted in Catholic tradition, but celebrated more secularly these days, Mardi Gras is the final day of revelry before Lent, the period of austerity that leads up to Easter. And what’s better for celebration than a bit of cake?
“What’s Mardi Gras without a king cake?” says Jake Tortorice, owner of three Rao’s bakeries in southeast Texas. “It’s like a birthday without a birthday cake. Boring.”
Originating in France, the king cake is said to have been brought to New Orleans in 1870. A mix between a French pastry and a coffee cake, the dough is typically twisted into an oval to mimic a king’s crown and decorated with icing and sprinkles in the colors of Mardi Gras—purple, gold, and green (representing justice, power, and faith).
Southeast Texas has a particularly strong Mardi Gras tradition, thanks to its proximity to Louisiana. Starting in the early nineteenth century, Cajuns crossed the border and established themselves in Texas, where Cajun and Creole cultures continue to thrive.
These four bakeries are perfect examples of that. While many Texans opt to source their king cakes from Louisiana—Randazzo in Metairie and Gambino’s in New Orleans are popular choices—these bakeries make cakes good enough to persuade even the most staunch diehards to make the switch.
“We think our king cakes are on par with anything you can get in New Orleans,” says Bobby Jucker, owner of Three Brothers Bakery in Houston.
Wherever you decide to purchase your cake, just remember that if you find the plastic baby in your slice, it’s your responsibility to buy the cake next year.
Beaumont, Nederland, and Spring
Rao’s first opened its doors in 1941, and patrons can still enjoy coffee and treats at the original Beaumont location. With additional locations in Spring and Nederland, this bakery has been crafting king cakes since the 1990s.
Tortorice says the bakery produced about 15,000 king cakes last year, including a mini version called Petite Lafitte. Serving twenty people, the regular king cakes come in a variety of flavors: traditional, strawberry cream cheese, blueberry cream cheese, raspberry cream cheese, and voodoo, which is filled with cream cheese and chocolate chips and topped with toasted coconut and more chocolate.
To ensure you get exactly what you want, it’s best to order online. On weekdays, Rao’s ships the next day directly to your home or business. But if you want to go in, Tortorice says there are usually twenty to thirty cakes on the counter every day, but you aren’t guaranteed to get the flavor you want. The last day to walk in and grab a cake is Fat Tuesday; although, Tortorice says if you order one outside of Mardi Gras season you can expect a package from Rao’s to arrive on your doorstep two days later.
Three Brothers Bakery
In early-twentieth-century Poland, Sigmund, Sol, and Max Jucker—the three brothers of the name—worked at the family bakery. But in 1941, the family was sent to concentration camps, ending the European era of the bakery. Four years later, the brothers fled the camps, and eventually they landed in Houston, where they opened Three Brothers Bakery in 1949.
Sigmund’s son, Bobby, came to work at the bakery in 1983 after graduating from college, and shortly after, it started making king cakes.
“My dad and his two brothers were really bread bakers,” Bobby says. “They didn’t keep up with what was going on other than Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and other major holidays. Mardi Gras? They had never heard of that before I came.”
But when they started making the French-inspired cakes, they were doing it wrong, and the native New Orleanians in the area said they didn’t taste like they do back home. Bobby went to all the famous Louisiana bakeries to figure out how to fix Three Brothers’ cakes. Turns out, they were making the dough in a huge strip, instead of running a small piece of dough through a machine to stretch it out.
“We have an influx of people who came to Houston [because of Katrina],” Bobby says. “They knew what king cakes are supposed to be like, so when we changed our recipe, they started coming here and getting them from us.”
Three Brothers Bakery makes king cakes all the way up until Fat Tuesday. It offers a cinnamon-filled and a cream cheese–filled cake, with the option to add a fruit filling. Since it does not ship king cakes, it’s best to go into the store or preorder online.
Whenever they go on vacation, Wendy and Mark Turner, owners of Cake Turners, take cooking classes. Five years ago, the husband-and-wife team learned how to make croissant dough while in France. Once they were back in Texas, they modified the recipe to create dough for king cakes, adding cinnamon and learning how to wrap it around fillings.
“It’s a little more of a European style and it’s turned out really well,” Mark says. “It’s very moist, flaky, and buttery.”
Mark estimates the bakery made roughly 1,300 king cakes last year and it’s on track to do 1,500 this season. It offers small, medium, and large sizes with sixteen filling choices, from chocolate chip cookie dough to savory, meaty boudin. Since the dough has a 24-hour rise, it’s best to preorder your cake online. Cake Turners does make about ten extras every day, but these typically sell out in the first few hours.
“You can tell the people who have ordered from us before,” Mark says. “They’re calling at like eleven o’clock asking if we have anything left.”
Like many of the other bakeries, Mark says Cake Turners will make a king cake any time of year, you just have to ask. “People seem to think that it’s illegal to make a king cake out of season,” Marks says. “We’ll just call it a Christmas wreath cake or a freedom rings cake.”
The brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Michael and Gemma Matherne, Curious Confections is a bespoke bakery they operate out of their home, thanks to the Texas Cottage Food Law. While Gemma attended culinary school, Michael took up cake art and special effects for fun.
“We always joke that his hobby is collecting hobbies,” Gemma says. “He’s my mad scientist.”
Like many native New Orleanians, Michael relocated to Austin after Hurricane Katrina. He told Gemma she should learn to make king cakes, since he couldn’t get them in his new city. The couple went on a grand tour of New Orleans bakeries, tasting every king cake they could get their hands on. They baked the first Curious Confections king cake in 2013.
Ever since, Gemma has experimented with the flavors, seeing what combination she could create next. In addition to the traditional and filled cakes, they also sell lavish specialty cakes complete with Mardi Gras–themed names, like Voodoo King and Voodoo Queen. Gemma’s favorite is the Who Dat!, made with chocolate-enhanced dough and topped with chocolate ganache.
At Curious Confections, everything is made to order, so you have to plan ahead. Gemma jokes that if you can get hold of her, she will take your order, whether it is through the website, phone, or Facebook messenger. Gemma also makes king cakes for birthday parties, crawfish boils, or other occasions. “That is the bonus of being a cottage bakery,” Gemma remarks. “We don’t stop when Mardi Gras ends.”