Here's an example of the importance of the king cake to New Orleans: in the year after Hurricane Katrina, orders of King Cakes rose in numbers as people both in and out the city wanted to show their support through the symbolic food.
The purple, green, and gold delicacy is an old New Orleans Catholic tradition that dates back several hundred years and was originally made from dried French bread dough with sugar on top; but the King Cake recipe has evolved to be more of a Danish-style dough with a glazed topping and sugar. In New Orleans today there are many different styles and flavors of King Cake, including traditional, cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or even strawberry. But no matter what, a New Orleans King Cake is usually topped with the purple, green, and gold sugar.
Those three colors are important both to the king cake and to New Orleans. Traditionally the three colors are a reference to the three kings who visited baby Jesus during the Epiphany, which occurs on January 6th. This date is also when New Orleans generally starts to eat King Cake because it also marks the start of the period leading up to Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Generally, King Cakes have a small plastic baby hidden inside, which represents the finding of Jesus Christ by the three kings.
Here's an interesting fact, though: In other countries, namely Belgium, France, Quebec, and Switzerland, they eat king cake during Christmas instead of during Mardi Gras. In many Spanish-speaking countries, instead of using a plastic baby they place a piece of candy or a small bean inside the cake. The variances in the King Cake show just how important this tradition is to not only New Orleans, but also countries and cultures around the world.
If you're interested in making your own King Cake, check out this website that has a great recipe!