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King cake is a Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans. Locals voted for the best one

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Time to get into the Mardi Gras spirit in this final weekend of Carnival before Fat Tuesday arrives, and no Mardi Gras celebration would be complete without a king cake - large rings of rich, bready brioche covered in green, gold and purple icing with sprinkles, and a little surprise trinket baked inside. In New Orleans, people are fiercely loyal to the bakeries where they get their favorite king cakes, so nola.com, a local news website, decided to hold the first king cake bracket and have readers vote for the best. Ian McNulty, dining and food culture writer for nola.com, ran the bracket and joins us now. Hi, Ian.

IAN MCNULTY: Debbie, great to be back with you.

ELLIOTT: So first off, I guess we need to explain the king cake tradition.

MCNULTY: Yeah, that's right. And that's important because people know about Mardi Gras, but really, Mardi Gras is the peak of Carnival season, and Carnival season begins typically with king cake. It's a symbol of the season in New Orleans. And as the season progresses, as the parades and the balls grow more frequent and more fierce in their in their gregariousness, it all comes to a peak. And for those of us who count our king cake days more closely than our king cake calories, the final stretch of Carnival means every king cake matters that much more, because you're not going to be able to get them for much longer.

ELLIOTT: So I want you to explain the little tradition of the little baby that is baked inside, and what happens if you get the piece with the little baby in it.

MCNULTY: Yeah. That's right. Yeah. The king cake baby is its own cultural emblem now in New Orleans. And it's a little - typically a little plastic baby. But the significance of it is if you get the slice of king cake with the baby within, you're on the hook to buy the next king cake. It's good luck for you. Yes, it means you have to buy another king cake, but that means you get to pick the next king cake, which is an increasingly interesting facet of king cake culture. King cake has grown into this creative endeavor, into this muse for New Orleans people to express themselves and put their own spin on the king cake ring.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's get into your bracket, because that's where this variety comes in, right?

MCNULTY: Right. Yeah. And the bracket was a runaway success. We had over 320,000 votes cast in this online king cake bracket through nola.com. The winner was a place called Ayu Bakehouse. The Ayu Bakehouse cake is special. It manages to balance the tradition that many people are looking for with an elevated touch. So it is a magnificent king cake.

ELLIOTT: So you mentioned that you can get all kinds of experimental king cakes these days. What are a few of the more interesting things that people are trying?

MCNULTY: I've had king cakes that have entire pralines fused to the surface - very New Orleans Creole take on it - king cakes that have been stuffed with crawfish, buttery crawfish. And are these even king cakes? That's a question that comes up. My answer is they are king cake-inspired, and I think they are tapping into the creativity that really does drive Carnival season and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: That was Ian McNulty, dining and food culture writer for nola.com. Thank you, Ian, for a tasty conversation.

MCNULTY: Always a pleasure to talk about my favorite topic, food in New Orleans. Thanks so much for having me. And come on down for Mardi Gras. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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