Manny Randazzo, King of King Cakes
In the early morning hours during Carnival season in New Orleans, it’s no rare event for passersby to observe a long line forming down the quiet side street of North Hullen. It’s there, wedged among rows of nondescript office buildings and storefronts, that you’ll find Manny Randazzo’s bakery, a go-to place for one of the city’s hottest commodities in the days leading up to Lent.
Manny Randazzo’s family has been baking king cakes for more than 50 years. His grandfather, father, and uncles opened the first Randazzo bakery in 1965, and the family’s name has since become associated with some of the best king cakes the city has to offer. Between Manny, his sister, and their cousins, the Randazzo family now operates five bakeries around New Orleans and the surrounding area. Manny’s bakery consistently makes lists of the best king cakes in New Orleans, but his is only a seasonal venture.
Beginning on Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, which falls on January 6th, customers form daily lines for king cake as early as 3:30 in the morning, a full three hours before Randazzo opens his doors. King cake season lasts until Mardi Gras, and Randazzo and his staff stay busy Monday through Saturday throughout the season.
“January 6th was a big day. So was January 7th. So was January 9th, and so was January 10th. It’s just amazing. We feel very blessed. We’re just trying to produce the best king cake we can.”
Manny’s cakes follow a traditional recipe: the same Randazzo king cake recipe his family established half a century ago. Per tradition, the cake is infused with cinnamon.
“The technique that we use makes a very tender dough that has a rich, creamy icing on top with the three colors of the granulated sugar on top of that,” Manny says. “It’s not duplicated.”
An Old World Tradition
Three Kings’ Day and the cake itself are named for the three kings who visit the infant Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Tradition, which Randazzo’s staff obliges, dictates that the baker place a tiny plastic baby figurine somewhere in each cake. The person who finds the baby in his or her piece of cake is granted good luck for the coming year – and is on the hook to buy the cake for the next.
The king cake tradition came to New Orleans the same way beignets and remoulade did, courtesy of French immigrants, and the practice has analogs all across Europe. Some cultures have observed a similar tradition during the Twelfth Night celebration, which occurs the day before Epiphany to conclude the 12 days of Christmas. Early versions of the tradition had a dry bean in place of the baby figurine. That practice has been traced all the way back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.
The New Orleans king cake is just one modern version of the cake to share that common origin. The roscón de reyes, the “kings’ ring,” is a version eaten in Spain and in parts of Latin America. The Portuguese have their bolo rei, which translates to “king cake,” while France and many French-speaking communities have the gâteau de rois, also meaning “king’s cake.”
No matter how far from New Orleans you live, you can still celebrate the Carnival season with a Manny Randazzo king cake. The bakery ships the cakes overnight everywhere in the continental United States. Order a traditional cinnamon or a cream cheese cake and it will arrive with a Mardi Gras cup, beads, doubloons, and a “History of the King Cake” brochure.
If you should happen to find yourself in Louisiana during the weeks leading up to Lent, and you don’t mind a line, stop by the shop to have your choice from filled king cakes with flavors like apple, lemon, strawberry, and the award-winning pecan praline.
Our Conversation With Manny Randazzo
KaTom: Tell us about how your family got started in this business. Did you always know you’d continue the tradition?
Manny Randazzo: My family got into the business back in 1965. I was 5 years old. My dad, my grandfather, and my two uncles started the business, and I grew up in it. Of course, when you’re growing up in a business, you don’t have an appreciation for what came before you. I’ve worked all throughout the business in the bakery growing up, but I decided not to become a baker when I got out of high school.
I had another profession in court reporting. When I was 30 years old, I wanted to get back into the business, so I did, and that’s where we are right now. It’s just an “in your blood” type thing. You grow up in it. It’s like home.
K: Help those of us farther away from the gulf understand the king cake tradition. It can be enjoyed any time between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, right?
MR: That’s correct. The Epiphany takes on the religious tones of the celebration of the holidays. The three wise men on the journey to find the Christ child. The plastic baby [in the king cake] represents the Christ child. That pretty much takes us with the circular king cake in search of the baby. We come to today’s interpretation. Everybody just eats a piece of king cake, and whoever has the baby inside their piece then provides the next king cake. And it just goes on and on like that.
A lot of times, people will celebrate it at schools, or their offices, or even at home. They’ll just pick up a king cake. Its just one of those things you want to share with other people because it just brings in the whole meaning of what it means to be with family and friends. So, the season is all the way through to Mardi Gras, which is Fat Tuesday – the day before Lent. So when you’re supposed to give up something that you enjoy, or to fast or whatever you want to do for Lent, everybody is in a celebratory mood for the king cake season.
Of course, we have Mardi Gras parades that start about two or three weeks before Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras itself is on February 28th this year. It’s a celebration every day, basically. The big days are Fridays, when everybody would like to have a king cake for their offices and, like I said, schools, at the plant – anywhere. That’s what we’ve come to enjoy.
I think Wisconsin has the kringle, but theirs is around Christmastime. This is a pretty unique thing that we’re able to celebrate with a pastry. It has significant meaning, and everybody wants to get involved, and everybody wants to get a king cake.
K: How often do you see lines like that form?
MR: Believe me, I’m just blessed every day. We just come to work every day and we – my staff and I – just do the best that we can. But this season seems to be pretty energetic. There’s a lot of people coming out. King’s day was on the 6th. And that is a big day. You’ll see those types of lines on January 6th.
In fact, we open up at 6:30 in the morning and people start lining up at 5:30 and they’ll wait. Because we do sell on a first-come, first-serve basis. People decide to come a little earlier and they’ll bring their lawn chairs. It’ll be 5 o’clock, next thing you know it will be 3:30 in the morning and you’ll have people waiting in line. It’s just amazing. The amazing thing is that this year, those lines have been pretty much every day. Not all the way down the street, but it goes out of my building all the way to the street.
Then on Fridays and Saturdays, the line will go down the block, almost as far as the pictures that you do see. It’s happening now. We usually don’t get those types of crowds until the Mardi Gras parades start. There’s one parade that starts three weeks prior to Mardi Gras – the kids’ parade – and then we have the adult parades that start up to two weeks before. Then you generate the enthusiasm and we have the big crowds. We’re having big crowds now.
January 6th was a big day. So was January 7th. So was January 9th, and so was January 10th. It’s just amazing. We feel very blessed. We’re just trying to produce the best king cake we can. Because when you come into my shop to buy a king cake, you’re only buying that one king cake, so the king cake that you go home with is the one that I want you to have as the best king cake you’ve ever tasted.
K: What does your bakery do throughout the rest of the year?
MR: We do ship out throughout the rest of the year until it gets to summertime. When it gets to the summertime we just don’t ship, because the king cakes can handle the heat, but they can’t handle heat being tossed around. We’ll stop until we’re back again, usually around Halloween time or Thanksgiving time. Around Christmas, we’ll actually open the store front two weeks before Christmas and we’ll have the king cakes with the red and green icing. We also do a candy-cane shaped king cake and a Christmas-tree-shaped king cake.
K: Are there particular places in the United States where you see people demanding them more than other place?
MR: Not really. We probably send more to Texas, and they’re more acquainted with the king cake and the king cake season. But we get a lot of orders from New York, Tennessee – pretty much throughout the whole continental United States.
K: What’s unique about a Manny Randazzo cake?
MR: The technique that we use makes a very tender dough that has a rich creamy icing on top with the three colors of the granulated sugar on top of that. We’re just able to produce that and it’s not duplicated. It is a family secret that we’ve held on to and just acquired through my family, and we just try to make the best king cake every time we go to work.