Start working up an appetite now, because king cake — I mean Carnival — season is only days away, and with it comes Bywater Bakery’s King Cake Kickoff! This celebration will include 1,500 king cakes for sale, whole or by the slice. The celebration is set for Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, and will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with children and dogs very much welcome.
The party will feature music from Debbie Davis and Josh Paxton, Tin Men, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Layla McCalla, Magnetic Ear, Renaissance School Brass Band, the Original Pinettes Brass Band, and others.
Also known as Epiphany and Three Kings Day, Twelfth Night is a feast holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Magi, or the three kings, to the infant Jesus. In Italy, the streets are filled with effigies of Befana the Epiphany witch. In New Orleans, Twelfth Night means decadent king cake and the beginning of the bacchanalian Carnival season.
The main course will be king cake, but there will also be red rice and beans (Twelfth Night falls on a Monday this year), as well as Ms. Linda’s famous yakamein.
While New Orleans king cakes were traditionally yeast cakes flavored with cinnamon and sugar, Bywater Bakery will be making eight varieties of king cake this year: carnival, chantilly, boille, cheesecake, pecan praline, raspberry truffle, azule dulce blueberry, and passionfruit pineapple. In another riff on the king cake theme, the bakery will also be selling three flavors of savory king cakes: crawfish, boudin, and spinach and artichoke.
As I live within walking distance of the bakery, and am in the cafe an amount that certainly crosses into a habit, I can say with authority that the king cakes from the Bywater Bakery rival the most famous in town. The pastry is light and airy, and the fillings are well-flavored and complement the cake extraordinarily well. My personal favorite from last year was the cheesecake flavor, which has an amazing tartness and moisture that offsets the sweetness of the cake. However, you also should not miss the Chantilly king cake, as Chaya Conrad, the head chef of the bakery, invented Chantilly cake.
Crucially, the slices of cake are generously sized — I recommend bringing a companion so that you can sample a few different varieties.
Last year, the event was a huge party with families from the neighborhood, bangin’ brass music, and Mardi Gras Indians dressed out in full splendor. I breakfasted on a hefty slice of king cake, and the mayor herself attended the festivities.
“We have been testing new recipes for weeks,” says Conrad, who owns the bakery with her husband, Alton Osborn.
“We start planning the next year’s season as early as May,” she said. “One of the things that makes us special is that we make fillings like Chantilly and cheesecake. But these have to be refrigerated. So refrigeration space has to be planned and replanned. Also, King’s Day is a beast unto itself. We map out that party for months, but it doesn’t matter how much planning you do. It’s always a little crazy.”
Last year, hundreds attended the block party. This year will be the bakery’s fourth year hosting the event, this time with assistance from Backbeat Foundation, a nonprofit that works to support New Orleans culture and arts.
“We are blessed to partner with the BackBeat Foundation, they are pros. That way I can stick to king cake production, which is my jam,” says Conrad.
There will be Mardi Gras Indians, Skeletons, and Baby Dolls in attendance, as well as Head Count, a nonpartisan non-profit that works to register voters at concerts and festivals. That way, you can have your first king cake of the season and register to vote at the same time!
For Osborn, though the preparations are intense, the equation is simple.
“It’s the kickoff to Mardi Gras. Who doesn’t like Mardi Gras?”
The Bywater Bakery’s 4th annual King’s Day King Cake Kick-Off will begin at 11 a.m. and go till 7 p.m. in the Bywater, at 3624 Dauphine St. Attendance is free and open to the public.