Tuesday, February 12, 2013

King Cake

Happy Mardi Gras! Being from New Orleans, this is one of my favorite times of year, though it's always a little sad when I don't get to go home for it. To make up for it though, I always bake a couple king cakes throughout the season. The Mardi Gras season officially starts on Epiphany, which is January 6, and lasts until the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. (In case you don't know, Ash Wednseday is always 46 days before Easter, which traditionally falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. It's complicated, I know.) Depending on when that is, Mardi Gras day can fall anywhere from February 3 to March 9, giving me anywhere from just under a month to just over 2 months to bake king cakes to my heart's content.

At this point you might be asking yourself, "What is a king cake anyway?" Well, dear reader, a king cake is traditionally served during the Mardi Gras season--in case you hadn't figured that much out already. It's not really a cake per se; it's actually much more bread-like. Flavorwise, it's a bit like a giant cinnamon roll, though don't let anyone fool you into thinking that it is just a giant cinnamon roll because it's not. The differences are subtle, yes, but it's still not a cinnamon roll. A plastic baby is also placed inside the cake, and finding it in your piece is good luck (and symbolizes the wise men finding baby Jesus in the manger). Typically when we would have Mardi Gras parties in school and such, whoever finds the baby also brings in the next king cake, in which case you may not feel it's so luck after all. Also, take it from the voice of experience here, when you go to cut the cake, try to remember where you put the baby so that you don't cut it in half. Nobody likes finding half a baby in their cake.

King cakes can vary a bit depending on which bakery makes them. Some bakeries use colored frosting. Other's use white frosting and then coat it in granulated sugar that has been dyed. Others still use white frosting topped with colored sugar crystals. Regardless of the topping, the colors are always the same: purple, green, and gold. Yes, it is a bit on the gaudy side, but those have been the traditional Mardi Gras colors since 1872. Purple stands for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Most bakeries also offer a variety of fillings. The standard filling is a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon, but other options include cream cheese, praline, lemon, apple, and a variety of other fruits. My personal preference is for the standard filling with the white frosting-sugar crystal combo, and that's what this recipe is for. The recipe is best when eaten within the first day or two after baking, but if you need to store it a little longer, just pop your slice in the microwave for a few seconds before eating to soften it back up. While it's really considered a dessert, I also recommend eating it for breakfast; a slice of king cake and a tall glass of ice-cold Coke is a fantastic way to start the day.


5/8 cup milk, warmed to about 110 degrees
1 package active, dry yeast
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
2 eggs
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3-1/2 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Egg wash
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk

Small, plastic baby*
1-1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
Purple, green, and yellow sugar crystals

*These can usually be found with baby shower items at craft and party stores. If you can't find one, substitute a dry kidney bean or a pecan half.


To make the dough, combine the warm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon sugar in a small bowl. Mix together and allow to sit 10 minutes until foamy. In the bowl of a mixer, whisk 2 eggs until light and frothy, about 2 minutes. Add milk mixture and remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Whisk until well combined.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and nutmeg, and mix until well-combined. Switch mixer to paddle attachment, and beat in butter 1 tablespoon at a time. Add flour mixture a spoonful at a time until completely incorporated. Change to dough hook and knead until mostly smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes. (If kneading by hand instead, it may take 5 to 7 minutes.) Lightly grease a large bowl and place kneaded dough inside. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a damp towel and place somewhere warm and free of drafts to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Turn dough out onto a clean, flat surface and punch down. Roll into a large rectangle, about 10"x24". Cut dough in half lengthwise so that you have two pieces that are 5"x24" each. For the filling, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, and mix until well-combined. Brush melted butter over each dough rectangle, then sprinkle brown sugar mixture over the top, leaving 1/2 inch border on each edge. Tightly roll up each rectangle so that you have two 24" long rolls, pinching the edge to seal. Gently braid the two rolls together and form into an oval on a large baking sheet, connecting the ends of the rolls by pinching together lightly.

Beat egg and milk together to make egg wash. Brush dough with egg wash and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Place somewhere warm and free of drafts to rise until nearly doubled in size, about 1 hour. Near the end of the hour, preheat oven to 350 F. Remove plastic wrap, and bake cake at 350 F for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool at least 20 minutes before frosting.

Before frosting cake, gently lift up a section of it and shove the plastic baby into the bottom, ensuring that it isn't visible when the cake is placed back on the pan. To make the frosting, place the butter in a bowl with a heaping spoonful of the powdered sugar, and beat until butter is well-incorporated. Add remaining sugar by heaping spoonfuls, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and lemon juice, and mix well. Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each, until you get a smooth frosting that is thick but will flow just a little. Spoon it over the cake, allowing it to run slightly down the sides, thickly coating as much of the top as you can. Spread it with a knife if needed. Quickly, before the frosting sets, top with colored sugar crystals, alternating sections of purple, green, and yellow.

Servings: 12

Recipe adapted from Cooking up a Storm and Noelle Carter.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thoughts about this post? I'd love to hear them!