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For Mardi Gras season, we tasted 4 Tampa Bay king cakes

Here’s how we ranked the local cakes, available to celebrate Carnival.
King cake from Alessi Bakery and the Fresh Market. [STEPHANIE HAYES  |  Tampa Bay Times]
King cake from Alessi Bakery and the Fresh Market. [STEPHANIE HAYES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 11

Our New Orleans transplant, food critic Helen Freund, has been craving king cake since Carnival season began on King’s Day, Jan. 6. The cake is customarily served from the day, which commemorates the three kings’ arrival at the birthplace of Jesus, through Fat Tuesday a.k.a. Mardi Gras.

Traditionally, the treat is made in a ring of cinnamon-like cake, with sweet glaze on top and glitter in green, gold and purple, the royal colors of Mardi Gras. We started seeing the cakes a week ago at some local grocery stores, and were able to special order one from a French bakery in Indian Rocks Beach.

A few other bakeries said they would also be taking special orders for the cakes through Mardi Gras, while some Publix stores said they plan to start stocking them in bakeries at the end of this week.

We bought four cakes total, and shared them with our colleagues at a recent meeting. Here are our favorites.

Cafe de Paris Bakery

This was the cake we special ordered and it was, indeed, special. While king cakes can come filled with fruit, cream cheese or cinnamon, this one from the traditional French bakery had a custard center. The French bakers also substituted powdered sugar on top of the cake for the more popular colorful glaze and sprinkles. The texture of the cake was much like a fresh croissant and the flavor was not overly sweet like some of the others sampled. Judges used the word “elegant” to describe this offering. “Whoa, look at this stunner,” said one taster. “It’s delicious and the pastry is out of this world — flakey and fresh and airy. Yum!” Another said, “It’s like a danish and a croissant had a baby.” Speaking of babies, traditionally the cakes have a hidden plastic baby baked into the dough. The individual who gets the baby in their slice is said to have good luck. The staffer who got the “baby” in this cake got something that looked more like a cross between a wise man and a nun. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a baby,” she said.

Would the judges buy? All 10 judges said yes.

Price: $20.75 for one cake

Frida’s Cafe & Bakery

Frida’s king cake had cherries in the batter, which our panelists loved. It also was a very buttery cake with thick, sparkly sugar. “The flavor is wonderful, I love the addition of the cherries,” said one taster. “It tastes like a large cherry pastry and the sprinkles actually have some crunch too, which is delightful.” A couple were turned off by the sugar dusting, saying it was “a little gritty, like sand.” We found the baby in this cake in the first bite of the first slice. One of our tasters almost choked on it. And it didn’t look much like a baby either — it was green. “It sort of looks like Baby Yoda,” she said. Overall, judges said this cake would be great — in small slices — and maybe not for small children because of the choking hazard. “Each slice offers a huge sugar rush,” said one.

Would the judges buy? Six of the 10 judges said yes.

Price: $16.49 for an approximately 1-pound cake

King cake from Alessi Bakery [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

Alessi Bakery

This popular Tampa bakery had king cakes with several fillings. We bought a traditional, plain one and the store clerk insisted we take a couple strands of Mardi Gras beads along with the cake. “It’s like a cinnamon roll with lots and lots of sugar on top,” said one taster. Judges said they thought this cake was likely the most traditional of those sampled. “It’s very sprinkle-forward,” said one judge. “The overall effect is kinda messy looking but the flavor is nice and pretty fresh tasting. I like how dense and fluffy it is, with a light cinnamon-y filling. It has great exterior texture and bready flavor, too.” Another said, “This has the best balance of everything.”

Would the judges buy? Six of the 10 judges said yes.

Price: $14 for a 1-pound, 9-ounce cake

The Fresh Market

We were happy to find a local grocery outlet already selling the king cakes. The first store in Tampa we visited was sold out last week, but the Fresh Market in St. Petersburg had plenty. Judges appreciated the texture of the cinnamon cake and the colorful look more than its very sugary taste. “I think the frosting and the sugar overwhelms the cake,” said one taster. This one also came with Mardi Gras beads to add an authenticity to the dessert. “It would look great as a centerpiece for a Fat Tuesday buffet spread,” said a judge who would buy the cake.

Would the judges buy? Six of the 10 judges said yes.

Price: $7.99 for a 1-pound cake

Panelists

Stephanie Hayes, deputy editor, features; Michelle Stark, food and lifestyle editor; Helen Freund, food critic; Sharon Kennedy Wynne, events editor; Kathy Saunders, editor, Bay Magazine; Maggie Duffy, arts writer; Christopher Spata, staff writer; Colette Bancroft, book editor; Ron Borreson, designer; and Meaghan Habuda, features producer.

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