The tradition traces back to southern France, where, according to ancient Biblical legend, people presented such gifts as dried fruit, eggs, and honey to commemorate the "Feast of the Epiphany," or the Three Magis Day (our friends Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior). The more modern way to celebrate is to synthesize all the gifts together into one ring-shaped cake, with fruitcake-esque candy gems, citrus flavors like lemon and orange, and a hidden bean.
The highlight is that hidden bean (or in more religious cases, a plastic baby Jesus doll). It's not the first time beans were magic (Remember Jack in the Beanstalk —trading the milk cow for the magic beans?). Besides enjoying the cake, the goal is to find the concealed bean, a symbol of fertility, harvest and a whole year's worth of good luck.
Down in N'awlins, locals celebrate tomorrow's Twelfth Night with a masquerade ball, where the fava bean-finder, or the Lord of Misrule in their terms, is "crowned." The coronated one is expected to call toasts, act chipper and basically just be the host or hostess with the mostest for an entire year.
Where can you find King cake around here? We called many international bakeries in the area with our last-minute request. After taking a break since 2004, the Tacos Pepitos bakeries are back in action, selling their Spanish Epiphany bread. The peach flavored cake contains nuts, and will be sold all day tomorrow (beginning early) at $15 for a medium-sized cake, and $25 for the larger ring. If you need yours today, head to Breadline before they close at 3:30 PM. A representative on the phone just promised us "eight left," but the $15-cake (which feeds eight) is selling out quickly.
Tacos Pepitos Bakery II, 1762 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-232-7121.
Pepito's Tacos Bakery, 107-B E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg; 240-631-2088.
Breadline, 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900.