In New Orleans, king cake reigns supreme. From King’s Day (the feast of the Epiphany on January 6) to Fat Tuesday (this year on March 1), the ring-shaped brioche-style cakes covered in frosting and yellow, green, and purple sugar rule the city. Every baker has their own take on it. Every citizen has a preferred kind. Throughout the parish, you can see king cakes on t-shirts, leggings, door hangers, and even tattoos. They take their king cake really seriously.
But, during the last several Mardi Gras seasons, a new dessert has gained popularity in the city: the queen cake. Although they may be found in a variety of bakeries across the city, the queen cake at Uptown’s Levee Baking Co. is especially noteworthy. Christina Balzebre, the creator of Levee, invented her redesigned cake four years ago, and it’s quickly become a favorite in this city of pastry lovers.
The bakery’s “galette de reine” (queen cake) is Balzebre’s take on a galette de rois, a traditional French pastry baked in January to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. Puff pastry is used to make galette de rois, which is filled with frangipani (a type of almond custard).
Balzebre’s galette de reine is also made with two irresistibly flaky layers of puff pastry, but filled with local pecans and citrus for a cake that’s truly rooted in the landscape of the Gulf Coast. Everything, from the pastry to the filling, is produced in the bakery.
Levee’s queen cake has an unmistakably feminist bent, with the combination of the name and the moon féve lending a particularly feminine aspect.
In 2018, Balzebre’s queen cake was born out of necessity—she was operating as a pop-up inside the popular Mosquito Supper Club and didn’t have the space to create the more traditional large New Orleans-style yeasted dough king cake. She intended to make a cake for Mardi Gras but was “burned out” on the king cakes that are anticipated throughout Carnival season.
“Having worked in so many commercial kitchens over the years, I know how difficult it is to be a baker around Mardi Gras. “It’s some of the most difficult job,” she adds. “So I thought, If we’re going to do this, let’s do galette de rois, which is a bit easier and takes up less space to make. Instead of almonds, I’ll use pecans. Also, citrus season coincides with Mardi Gras, so it simply came together and gives something a bit new for this time of year.”
The queen cake takes about three days to create, from making and resting the pastry dough to putting the filling together. “It’s complex to prepare, but the components are extremely basic,” Balzebre explains. The exquisite decorations on the tops of the cakes are created with a paring knife on cold dough.
Local ingredients are at the center of Balzebre’s redesigned Carnival cake, which she has lived in New Orleans for 17 years. “The whole ethos behind the bakery is making sure everything is as locally produced as possible,” she says. “We use local pecans, which we toast ourselves, and citrus, which we candy for the filling ourselves. Sometimes kumquats, sometimes tangerines or blood oranges, and occasionally grapefruit.”
While most king cakes come with a plastic baby inside—whoever gets the baby in their piece gets either a year of good luck or has to buy the next king cake, depending on the company you keep—Levee’s is accompanied by a ceramic moon féve. A féve is a little trinket buried in Mardi Gras cakes, a French and Louisiana custom. Ceramic infants or various shapes of féves (shoes, veggies, etc.) would have been typical in New Orleans king cakes before plastic became popular.
Jackie Brown, a local ceramicist who studied old-style king cake féves, handcrafts each féve. She and Balzebre decided on a moon form for the galette de reine. Brown makes several large batches of small ceramic moons with faces for the bakery each Mardi Gras season, using a cast and then hand-painting details like lips, cheeks, and eyelashes. Brown has created around 450 moon fevés for Levee so far in 2022.
Levee’s queen cake has an unmistakably feminist bent, with the combination of the name and the moon féve lending a particularly feminine aspect. (I had a Levee queen cake at a baby shower recently, which seemed eerily appropriate.) “It’s critical to flip the script,” Balzebre argues. “In general, there’s a lot of feminism in my company.” Every queen cake is made with purpose. Each cake has a slightly different design, with the féve placed with care on top.
Competition for a Levee queen cake can be stiff—you’ll need to pre order online at least a day before to score a $35 cake (or a slice for $4). Levee’s brick-and-mortar bakery, hidden in a mint green building just off New Orleans’ busy Magazine Street, often sells out of cakes.
Balzebre also underlines the need of collaboration in the making of a queen cake. Every cake—about 20 to 50 a day, depending on the point in the season and how high demand is—has been worked on by four to five Levee employees, including Balzebre herself. “For bakers, the season of Mardi Gras is a collaborative effort,” she says.