After several years of sending writers out to sample the Crescent City's many takes on King Cake, NoDef opted this year to let the people weigh in. On Jan. 24, hundreds of guests piled into the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's weekly After Hours event to help us choose the most outstanding oval in NoDef's first public King Cake Quest.
Hungry guests were sure to binge before Lenten hibernation, and every baker had a number one fan. However, when the votes were tallied, three stood out in the crowd. Cake Café came in first place, Gambino’s took second, and Pure Cake won the number three spot.
Appropriately, the 101 Drummers and War Chief Juan Pardo provided the soundtrack to the night full of art, merriment, and sugary goodness. The judging process was simple. Each king cake was laid out with the name of the bakery displayed before it with a paper cup to the side. After people sampled the offerings, they dropped toothpicks in the corresponding cups to indicate which ones they enjoyed the most.
The process was slanted towards bakeries with larger cakes, since the smaller ones were gobbled up before some guests got a chance to get their hands sticky. However, NoDef was sure to chase people down and get reactions on every single cake. Just 45 minutes into the night, display tables were a mutiny of crumbs, sugar, and icing-coated utensils. Not one fleck of cake of the 35 cakes made it out alive.
Within minutes the Ogden After Hours crowd devoured tables of king cakes from 17 different bakeries around New Orleans. By the end of NoDef’s King Cake tasting not even a crumb remained, but the crowd still buzzed about their favorite cakes. Despite the tough competition, Cake Café (2440 Chartres St., Marigny) was the clear crowd favorite.
“It’s almost like a fruit tart,” said one man going back for seconds. “Goat cheese and apple, that’s hard to beat,” said one seasoned taster.
The apple and goat cheese combo adds an elegant twist to the classic cinnamon, but no one can underestimate the power of tradition. Gambino’s (4821 Veterans Blvd., Metairie), which has been slanging king cakes for more than 50 years, came in a close second with their cinnamon king cake. “I’m from Louisiana, so I’m partial to Gambino’s,” said one woman in the crowd.
A more recently-opened bakery on Freret, Pure Cake (5035 Freret St., Uptown), showed their winning green, purple and gold colors by rounding up third.
“The cream cheese icing really makes it moist,” said one woman.
Famed Metairie King Cake spot Haydel’s (4037 Jefferson Hwy., Old Jefferson) wasn’t in the top three, but they weren’t far behind.
“Haydel’s never disappoints,” said one loyal fan. The key to Haydel’s success seems to be their icing-to-bread-ratio—a perfect combination of starchy striations and ooey gooey.
“My family always gets Haydel’s,” said a teenaged taster.
While the chocolate king cake from Bittersweet Confections (725 Magazine St., Warehouse District) did not make it to the top, that's no fault of its taste. The first round of people cleared the solo cake before the rest of the crowd even got a chance. “The chocolate was excellent,” said one taste tester. “That was my favorite,” said another. The chocolate was rich without being overpowering, and many compared the taste of the cake to a chocolate croissant.
Owner Cheryl Scripter is a Louisiana native, and she loves to use locally produced products when she makes her confections.
Other king cakes caught people’s eye before even taking a bite. “I like the look of the Maple Street Patisserie (7638 Maple St., Uptown) cake,” said one man, commenting on the king cake’s Jackson Pollock-esq splatter of Mardi Gras colors. “The filling is just right,” said one observer, commenting on Maple Street’s cream cheese cake. Maple Street also put out their classic cinnamon. We didn’t overhear anyone talk about the cinnamon filling, perhaps due to the persistent chomping.
It should come as no surprise that many people marveled over Sucre’s (3025 Magazine St., Uptown) king cake. “It’s almost shining,” said one person. “It’s really pretty,” said another. Sucre’s king cakes, like all of their pastries, look almost too good to cut, but once you do it’s always worth it. “It’s just light and good,” said one taster.
Adrian’s Bakery and Ice Cream (4710 Paris Ave, 2016 O.C. Haley) offered one of the more traditional, fluffier cakes. A few people in the crowd said they preferred less chewy festive fare. “It’s a little too fluffy for me, I prefer less bread,” one critic commented. However, some in the crowd appreciated the classic feel of the confection. “I love Adrian’s,” said one taster. “They’re still my favorite.”
Adrian's has been in business for seven years, and king cake is just the beginning. They also do cakes for occasions from weddings, to baby showers, to birthday parties.
The Peacebaker (6601 Veterans Memorial Blvd, Metairie) was in the mix, but NoDef didn’t advertise the cake as vegan and gluten free (per the baker’s request). However, we were thrilled to overhear one taster complain that she was gluten intolerant, as it gave us a chance to share the King Cake tradition with a Mardi Gras virgin. Most people noticed something different about the cake, but no one’s comments were negative. In fact, some people preferred the softer variety.
“It’s so soft, like a pound cake,” said one taster. “I really like the size of it, and the peace sign on the top,” said another member of the crowd.
The Sweet Life Bakery (6268 Vicksburg St., Lakeview) threw a new flavor into the mix. If you’re a fan of almonds, this is the king cake for you. “I’m staying right here,” laughed one taster. “I love everything almond and vanilla,” she said, staking out her spot. By 6:30, Sweet Life’s cake was devoured, leaving only sugar and crumbs in its wake.
If you're looking for a Crescent City cake without the royalty, check out Sweet Life's Who Dat Cake.
If you like sugar, you’ll love Breaux Mart’s Praline King Cake. The new spin on the classic is thin, easy to cut, and covered in praline on the outside and in the middle
. “It’s too sweet for me,” a taster said, “but the bread is good, it’s easy to eat.” Pralines are essentially pure sugar—not a good option for someone without a saccharine palate. However, a little piece is sure to satisfy a sweet tooth.
As the name implies, Breads on Oak (8640 Oak St., Riverbend) delivered in terms of consistency.
“It just tastes so fresh,” a sweet toothed stroller said. Their cinnamon cake is made with all organic ingredients, and they have a vegan option at their store. This cake is for bread purists—not people looking for a flimsy, sugar-stuffed treat.
The flavors weren’t the only cake element that bakers reinvented. Tartine (7217 Perrier St., Uptown) doesn’t need a hole in the middle—they’re happy to give you a blob of flaky goodness. Although the shape and structured tested NoDef’s plastic-knife-cutting skills, the little cake was a crowd pleaser.
“It just falls apart in your hands,” a carouser commented. “And the icing is just right.”
Some cakes were smaller than others, and hungry tasters gobbled those up before NoDef could get a feel for their mass appeal. Gracious Bakery (1000 S. Jeff Davis Pkwy., Mid-City ) was a favorite among the little kids that got a chance to taste it. “I like the beads on it,” said one junior critic. “And the icing is good,” she said, sheepishly.
Although their cake is a shrunken, less sugar-coated version of the classic, Gracious' king cake is all New Orleans. Owner Megan Roen Forman is a native and former Pastry Chef of Bayona Restaurant.
Swiss Confectionery (747 St. Charles Ave., Uptown) was another draw for the little ones. Kids gravitated towards the sprinkled, pastel exterior, and grown ups liked the consistency. “That one was easy to chew, not too dry,” said one man in the crowd.
King cake season is nearing its close, but you can hit up Swiss Confectionery in the Warehouse District for wedding cakes, specialty cakes, pastries, and more.
The one outta-towner was another small cake that went fast. Classic Golden Pecans is a Lafayette-based business, but they tasted local to us.
“I dropped like four toothpicks in that one,” said one hungry gentlemen. “The icing is just like—I really like that one.” We didn’t spill the beans about the bakery’s non-504 area code.
In past years, nutella has replaced peanut butter as everyone’s favorite snack to eat straight out of the container. One baker from La Dolce Nola (200 Metairie Road, Metairie) is riding the hazelnut wave, and the crowds appreciated it. “I love the one with the nutella in it,” said one woman, emphatically. “I like how it wasn’t too sweet until you get to the filling.” Although the cake’s filling is modern, the structure is traditional—almost like a McKenzie’s cake. Some criticized the cake for being “too bready.”
Correction: 1-27-13, 12:05pm. The original version of this article listed the location of Haydel's Bakery as Metairie.