Let them eat (king) cake!

Traditional, French king cakes and where to find them in New Orleans.

Though the king cake traveled to New Orleans from France approximately 150 years ago, the practice actually dates back centuries earlier to ancient pagan festivals. A bean was hidden inside a cake and the man who was lucky enough to find it was made king for a year and then offered to the gods at the end of that year in an annual human sacrifice. Like many other pagan practices, the king cake tradition (minus the sacrifice) was adopted by Christianity and was instead associated with the Epiphany, a feast day that commemorates the coming of the magi and the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.

La Petite Sophie Patisserie

Today, in the Western world, the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day is celebrated on January 6th and is one of the oldest festival days of the Christian church. In New Orleans, the day is marked by the first of many Mardi Gras parades and the consumption of large quantities of king cake. Locally, the most familiar form of the cake is a sweet roll or danish covered in purple, green and gold frosting and sugar sprinkles, like what you can find at Haydel’s, Randazzo’s or even the local grocery chain Rouses. But the classic versions from France and Spain are quite different. Luckily for our palates (but not our waistlines!) there’s a proliferation of great bakeries in the Greater New Orleans Area, many of which who offer “old-world” versions of this celebrated confection.

Everyone who enjoys pastry likely loves a good sweet roll, which is what many of New Orleans’ most beloved king cake bakeries and grocery stores offer. But if you’ve never enjoyed the classic French “Galette des Rois,” you really haven’t been living … at least not well. Layers and layers of delicate puff pastry filled with frangipane, which is a sweet almond filling, it breaks apart in your mouth like a buttery cloud. It’s heavenly and, in my humble opinion, the king of all cakes.

Gracious Bakery, one of the most prolific bakeries in town, offers a gorgeous galette des rois every year since they opened in 2012. Owned and operated by Megan Forman and her husband Jay, Gracious has expanded from a single location in Gert Town to two more, one on St. Charles Avenue and another on Prytania Street. Her galettes are wondrous pieces of art, and though fèves (king cake trinkets) are no longer baked into the cakes at most bakeries, they still include a little plastic baby in every box. Forman also offers what she calls a “Queen Cake,” which is actually a ring-shaped roll or modified pain au lait in new and different flavors – from nectar (like the soda) and praline to the most recent Cherries Jubilee with a rum-soaked cherry filling and Moon Pie with graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow.

Gracious Bakery

If there’s anyone in the Greater New Orleans Area who makes incredible French pastry, it’s the folks at La Petite Sophie Patisserie. Bakers and owners Jeff and Lya Becnel are making pastry that is so good, it’s rumored that French expats in the area say it tastes like home and their galette des rois is no exception. With its multitude of flaky, buttery layers, creamy frangipane and sweet glaze, it’s an experience to remember, and if Becnel decides to offer it this year, the chocolate version will totally knock your socks off. Just this year, La Petite Sophie has begun offering another classic king cake found in Southern France and Spain, a braided brioche ring with a citrus glaze, pearl sugar and colorful dots of candied fruits. Becnel has put a Louisiana twist on this new-old cake with the inclusion of a satsuma glaze. If that’s not enough to draw you all the way out to River Ridge, then their kouign-amann king cake, a giant iteration of what is arguably their finest pastry, just might do the trick.

Another great spot offering galette des rois is Maple Street Patisserie in the Riverbend. Polish pastry chef Ziggy Cichowski has been wowing the bend with his breads and pastries for a decade now, and there seems to be no signs of stopping. He’s also recently recruited Jack Petronella, a baker from New Jersey who owned and operated the now defunct Manhattan Jack’s on Prytania Street. Cichowski’s galettes taller than most, puffy domes of bliss, glazed to give the golden pastry a sweet, inviting glow. Maple Street Patisserie also features a brioche king cake with frosting instead of glaze, flaunting the purple, green and gold (justice, faith and power), colors established by the Krewe of Rex in New Orleans almost 150 years ago.

Maple St. Patisserie

La Boulangerie, the popular Uptown bakery on Magazine Street also offers a stunning galette des rois, complete with a small porcelain fève and a golden paper crown. In business well over a decade, La Boulangerie was purchased by the Link Restaurant Group in 2016 (to much grumbling from the neighborhood’s denizens) and now the talented pastry chef Maggie Scales is calling the shots and putting all the rumblings to rest. La Boulangerie also offers the usual New Orleans-style king cakes that are similar to a sweet roll in flavors like cinnamon, almond apple and double chocolate … all of which come with a sweet little, plastic pink pig.

Recently opened just off Magazine Street, Levee Baking Co. is another great source for a stunning galette des rois. Owner Christina Balzebre’s homespun bakery had been popping up for several years at the Mosquito Supper Club on Dryades and the Crescent City Farmers Market before finally opening her own digs a little over six months ago. At Levee, their galettes are dubbed “Queen Cakes” due to a few differences in the design, such as the use of whole grain flour and a pecan citrus frangipane. Balzebre’s galettes or queens come in two sizes, small and large, and each one comes with a unique porcelain fève handmade by local artist Jackie Brown (@jackiebrownceramics on Instagram) that symbolize the baby Jesus.

Photo courtesy of Levee Baking Co.

Last, but most definitely not least, neighborhood restaurant Thalia announced that they’re offering a special galette des rois on their dessert menu for the entire carnival season. Launched in early August last year, Thalia is the brainchild of Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, the chefs/owners of the popular Magazine Street restaurant Coquette. You won’t want to let the Mardi Gras season pass before trying a slice of the almond, hazelnut and Meyer lemon galette from this family-friendly hotspot in the Lower Garden District.

Photo courtesy of Thalia

House of the Week: Greek Revival side hall on Prytania Street

When I moved from the Carrollton neighborhood and back to the Garden District three years ago, there was a house just a few doors down that had been almost wholly razed except for the foundation. As the months passed, construction began, and after a year or so, it almost looked as if it had always been there. They designed the new house (at least the exterior) to look practically identical to the 1830s-era home they tore down.

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Ages ago, when my income was a tad more disposable, I had a bit of a thing for salt and pepper shakers. I admired many sets but bought only a select few, and after a while, I had a mini-collection, approximately ten sets, of which I was rather proud.

Turkey and the Wolf has different S&Ps on every table. This is one of several pictures!

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What I did on my summer vacation …

Surely y’all remember writing about what you did on your summer vacation when you went back to school in September. It seemed like an elementary/middle school English teaching requirement. Naturally, my essays would include a lot of food and not much has changed over time. After 8 long years, I finally was able to take a short vacation thanks to my mother’s plentiful miles and my friend’s willingness to care for my elderly Shih Tzu while I was away.

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Celebrating 48 Years: Palm & Pine

Though some might believe it makes me a terrible food writer, I’m notoriously bad at patronizing pop-ups. I’ll mark them on my Google calendar, get all excited about trying new dishes from daring young chefs eking their way towards their own brick & mortar. Then almost inevitably, something will prevent me from attending … IE. illness, car trouble, money issues, a heated argument with my SO, my lazy ass … you get the idea.

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Trading Thai for tapas

When the Spanish-inspired Costera Restaurant & Bar opened in the Prytania Street building that formerly housed La Thai, I was easily one of the first to try it. My zealousness was not due to the type of restaurant nor was I overly anxious to see what Brian Burns, formerly chef de cuisine at Peche, had in store (well, in all honesty, I was actually a little excited about that). But what really pulled me in there, no joke, was the fact that Costera was an Uptown spot that was open all day long.

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House of the Week: Sidehall Camelback on Coliseum Street

New Orleans’ wretched summer heat is already upon us and it’s not even officially summertime yet. Though I love taking walks with Pippin around my gorgeous neighborhood, my sweet pup turns 17 this year and he’s really slowing down … especially when the heat index is over 90°.  Our long, long walks have recently shortened to a quick jaunt then back into our air-conditioned apartment.

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Down on Oak Street

Opened a little over two years ago, DTB or “Down the Bayou” is a restaurant in the Carrollton neighborhood described as offering “reinterpreted  coastal Cajun cuisine.” Created by talented local chef Carl Schaubhut and run by his chef de cuisine John Hill, this intriguing, corner restaurant has been going strong, enticing diners with their dishes of fried cornbread with ham hock marmalade and goat cheese mousse, LA-1 Gumbo with blue crab and collard greens, and blackened redfish with succotash risotto.

Shrimp & Grits with oyster mushrooms and Pecorino cheese grits

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Cooking Keto: Andouille Sausage, Spinach & Mushroom Quiche

As anyone who has followed my blogs knows, I have always had a weight problem. For reasons I’d rather not delve into as of yet (someday), I’ve used food for comfort since I was 9 or 10-years-old. People have many forms of escape to dull the pain of living, from drugs and alcohol to athletics or a well-worn book. For me it was mostly food. Sure, I dabbled in drugs during my youth, but stints with LSD and cocaine were more about fitting in, having fun and expanding my mind as opposed to easing the aches and pains of reality. For me, food was the ultimate safety net, the bastion of comfort and pleasure, the hole I would crawl into so frequently, that it’s taken all my life to finally emerge from its dangerous embrace.

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A sign?

Throughout my 45+ years on this planet, I’ve seen some pretty amazing natural phenomenon. While walking with my mom on Sawyer Camp Trail in San Mateo, we encountered a large buck standing on a hill staring down at us and as we glanced up, the  sun just happened to be setting perfectly in between its antlers. Another time, while I was on a 6th grade camping trip, we discovered a large meadow of white wildflowers in the middle of the forest and when one of my classmates stepped into it, clouds of ladybugs burst from seemingly nowhere and many of them lit upon us … covering us all in red and black. Finally, at one of the many late night beach parties I attended in Half Moon Bay, we were shocked to find our footprints were glowing. Every time we stepped in the wet sand, green sparks would shine and then fade before our disbelieving eyes. We later discovered that a tiny, single-celled marine animal called “noctiluca” will often wash up onto the shore and when it’s disturbed, it emits a bio luminescence or those eerie green sparkles that glowed in our wet footprints.

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