Matt Haines has always had an obsession with King Cake. It all started in 2007 during an exceptionally long Carnival season. Haines wanted to try as many different king cakes as possible, so he began sampling as many as he could. He even checked online lists to ensure that there wasn’t any king cake he would miss.
How the big book came about
“I created a spreadsheet to plot out what my choices were, and it became a list of over 100 king cakes pretty quickly,” Haines said. “I was blown away by how many different varieties of king cake there were.”
He thought it would be fun to go on a king cake adventure, so he ate a few different slices of cake each day throughout Carnival. When all was said and done, Haines had consumed 88 slices of king cake that season.
When Haines became a writer, he used his knowledge to write articles about the seasonal dessert, and found that they were consistently popular with his readers. Then, during the pandemic, Haines noticed a heightened interest in king cake and its tradition, so he thought he would write a book about it.
He explained, “In February, I wondered about the last time someone wrote a book about king cake. I looked online, and I couldn’t believe that the only books about king cake were short-story children’s books.”
Haines wanted to change that, so he set out to photograph a wide variety of king cakes and write about 75 bakeries that make them for his coffee table book, The Big Book of King Cake, now available for pre-order from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Matt’s website and local bookshops. For Haines, putting the book together was a lot of work, but it was also fun.
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“King cakes are so beautiful, and there’s such a variety and history to them,” he said. “They are such a big part of what New Orleans is, especially during Carnival.”
Haines’ 368-page book contains beautiful color photos by photographer Randy Krauss Schmidt and tells the story of king cake’s history throughout the years. Accompanying essays include information about the bakeries that make king Cakes, their connection to the dessert, and their own traditions surrounding it.
“The book is not only about the cakes, but it’s about the bakers,” Haines explained. “It’s a celebration of Louisiana’s bakers, their creativity, and their diversity. They all bring their own versions and flavors of what king cake can be.”
The history of king cake
Haines explained the cake has thousands of years of history that dates back to the pre-Roman empire. He wanted to tell the story of how king cake spread across Europe, how it found its way to Louisiana, and how the confection evolved since it got here. The book includes a section called “International Cousins” that shows what the tradition looked like in other parts of the world such as Switzerland, Southern Germany, Northern and Southern France, Greece, and Bulgaria.
“King cakes in other parts of the world are different, but you can see their similarities,” Haines said. “You can see the connecting thread from one type of king cake to another.”
In The Big Book of King Cake, Haines writes about the traditions connected to king cake, when it’s traditionally enjoyed, and the trend of off-season king cake.
He explained, “I wanted to get into all of the different debates about New Orleans food and tradition. I spoke to bakers who believe you should only have king cake from January 6 to Fat Tuesday. Other bakers say that you can enjoy king cake all year—whatever makes you happy.”
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Haines also includes a historical perspective on the tradition.
“In many countries, the cake was only enjoyed on Twelfth Night,” he said. “King cake was meant to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. Slowly over time, largely because of king cake parties, the cake branched out into the rest of Carnival season. Now it’s seen as something that ushers in the Carnival season. The book explores how these traditions have evolved.”
Where to buy The Big Book of King Cake
The Big Book of King Cake can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Matt’s website and local bookshops, and the book will be available in select stores just before Thanksgiving.