Taste test of Mardi Gras king cakes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 1:43 PM

If there's an edible equivalent to gaudy plastic beads and giant papier-mache floats, it is the king cake. As a Louisiana native and Mardi Gras enthusiast, I've eaten more slices of the holiday's signature dessert than I'd care to admit. (We were even served king cake in the school cafeteria during January and February.) That could be why every January, I get a certain sugar craving that can only be satisfied by an icing-drenched, cinnamon-laced braided wreath.

In New Orleans and throughout Cajun country, you can't enter a bakery or supermarket without tripping over boxes of king cakes. In the Washington area, however, getting a king cake fix requires a little more legwork. Bakeries or grocery stores that carry king cakes tend to have them late in the Carnival season, which runs from the beginning of January through Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras Day (March 8 this year). David Guas's Cajun haven, Bayou Bakery, has limited its king cake production to Tuesdays and Fridays.

The alternative: Let the king cakes come to you. Most New Orleans bakeries ship Carnival goodness across the country each year.

But not all mail-ordered cakes are created equal, as we found in our taste test. Here are the results, in order, of our five-member panel's assessments of Guas's cake and four cakes shipped overnight from well-known purveyors.

Overall, we found the top two contenders worth ordering - especially if you are catering to a native New Orleans crowd - and Bayou Bakery's single-serving slices are a good budget alternative.

1. Sucre

Sucre's king cake, slightly larger than a Danish ring, arrives practically glowing with glittery, iridescent icing. A relative newcomer to the New Orleans king cake scene, this Magazine Street bakery quickly won over the city's discerning palates. Sure enough, the combination of whipped cream cheese filling and buttery, yeasted pastry wowed our testers.

10 to 12 servings, $20. 504-708-4366; www.shopsucre.com.

2. Manny Randazzo

Randazzo is the yardstick by which New Orleans measures its king cakes. One look at the explosion of sprinkles and frosting covering this cake, and it's easy to understand why the eponymous stand sells thousands of cakes each year. Even after traveling hundreds of miles, this cake lived up to its name, with a pillowy, pull-apart texture and hint of apricot.

20 to 24 servings, $44.95; 866-456-1476; www.randazzokingcake.com.

3. Bayou Bakery

Guas's king cake scored major presentation points with glitzy swaths of purple, green and gold icing. On the inside, however, it resembled a hearty loaf of not-very-sweet cinnamon bread. This cake would be good for breakfast with a cup of Bayou Bakery's French-press coffee, but perhaps not as a last sugary indulgence before a dessert-free Lent.

16 servings, $35 whole, $2.50 per slice; 703-243-2410; www.bayoubakeryva.com.

4. Gambino's

One of the Big Easy's most famous bakeries steps it up during king cake season with a menu of customizable mix-and-match fillings. Our raspberry- and cream cheese-filled cake arrived unadorned, with a DIY kit of icing and sprinkles. Maybe it was our fault for picking one filling too many, but this soggy cake left us disappointed.

12 to 15 servings, $43.75; 504-712-0809; www.gambinos.com.

5. Rao's Bakery

The Krewe of Zulu hosts one of the Crescent City's most popular parades, so the assumption is that Rao's Bakery's Zulu king cake must be something special. Wrong. Not even gobs of coconut and chocolate on the top could make up for its bland, dry pastry.

15 to 20 servings, $45.95; 409-832-4342; raosbakery.com .

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