It’s king cake day! Or rather, today is Fat Tuesday, which means it’s time to get your grub on before the Lenten fast begins. Ok, I’m not really going to fast – that tradition died out in my family ages ago. But, in celebration of Mardi Gras, I did dig out my favorite king cake recipe.
If you’re not familiar with king cake, you might be surprised to read that most recipes require you to knead the dough. Dough in a cake recipe, you may ask yourself? That’s because this baked ring is less of a traditional cake and more of a bread. A brioche-like yeast bread, in fact. Despite their yeasty, non-sugary bulk, king cakes often contains a sweet filling rolled up in the middle, and are then covered with glaze and colored sprinkles. It’s not a super sweet treat, save for the diabetes-inducing glaze and sprinkles. Also, king cake recipes often employ the use of citrus flavoring – like candied citron, orange zest, etc – so they have a very unique flavor.
The first time I made a king cake recipe, I fought with the dough tooth and nail. I didn’t have a Kitchenaid Mixer onhand, which the recipe called for, so I had to mix everything by hand — not normally a big deal, except for the fact that I also had to incorporate the cold butter into the dough, which isn’t easy using your hands when you don’t have a pasty cutter. I was convinced that the dish was going to fail. There was butter all over the kitchen: on the counter, under the cabinets, smeared across the wall… everywhere but in the dough, it seemed. But still I trudged on, and put the dough out to rise.
Color me surprised when a few hours later, I found I had a perfectly-risen ball of brioche-like dough sitting in my mixing bowl. Hallelujah! But my foibles didn’t end there… I also forgot to add brown sugar to the filling, so my king cake was anything but sweet on the inside (thank god for the super-sugary glaze and colored sprinkles!).
I guess that goes to show that even us cooking pros making mistakes when we’re not paying attention. Ce la vie.
One thing I should mention is that there’s a little plastic baby lodged in the middle of a traditional king cake recipe. This little guy is supposed to signify Baby Jesus, and whoever gets the slice with the baby in it is supposed to have a year of good luck (or, depending on who you talk to, they’re the ones stuck making the king cake next year). Please, for the love of Baby Jesus, do not bake the plastic baby in the cake. It will melt, obviously. You have two options: push the baby into the underside of the cake after it’s cooled, but before you glaze it, or buy a hard sugar baby made for especially for baking.
And for those who want a little background on Mardi Gras itself, this Wikipedia entry will give you the down-low in just a few paragraphs. To sum it up:
In many areas, the term “Mardi Gras” has come to mean the whole period of activity related to the celebratory events, beyond just the single day. In some US cities, it is now called Mardi Gras Day or Fat Tuesday. The festival season varies from city to city, as some traditions consider Mardi Gras the entire period between Epiphany (or Twelfth Night) and Ash Wednesday. Others treat the final three-day period before Ash Wednesday as the Mardi Gras.
C’est si bon!
If you like this recipe, you might be interested in the following resources:
- A brief history of the king cake
- What’s the deal with the plastic baby inside the cake?
- If you can’t find king cake babies at a local baking supply shop, Amazon sells them by the bag.
- Not up for making a whole king cake? Try these king cake bars.
- Another unique bread-cake thing: Emily Dickinson’s black cake
Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe – Stand Mixer-Free
Summary: In honor of Mardi Gras, this king cake recipe will help you celebrate, bayou-style. Soft and sweet, this bready treat is covered with a sweet glaze and colored sugar.
Yield: serves 8
- 1 envelope active, dry yeast
- 2 tablespoon warm water
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 scant teaspoon lemon zest, chopped fine
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided in half
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
- 1/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 2 eggs, beaten well
- 2 cups flour
- 1 stick cold butter, cut into small chunks
- Non-stick cooking spray
- 1 cup walnut pieces
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 tablespoons agave nectar or honey
- Egg wash: 1 egg, beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
- 1 small plastic baby trinket (do not bake the baby in the cake!)
- 1 1/2 cups Powdered Sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon water
- Colored sugar or sprinkles in the following colors: purple, green, and gold/yellow
1. In a large bowl, combine yeast and warm water. Stir and let sit for 10 minutes, or until foamy.
2. Add the salt, sugar, lemon zest, half of the cinnamon, cayenne, and milk to a small bowl and stir until combined. Once the sugar has dissolved, pour the milk mixture into the yeast, mixing well. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until they are incorporated. Add the flour in quarters until it is all mixed in and you’ve got a sticky dough.
3. Now’s where you get your hands dirty! Stick your hands into the bowl and knead the dough for 10 minutes, until it is elastic and not nearly as sticky as it was when you started. Add the cubed butter and knead it into the dough, acting quickly so that as little of it melts as possible. You’ll likely have a big, buttery mess on your hands – that’s fine. Just make sure the butter is well incorporated into the dough. Form the dough into a ball.
4. Lightly spray down a clean bowl with non-stick cooking spray. Add the dough ball, rolling it around so that it’s completely coated with oil. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm room for 1 hour. The dough should double in size. After an hour has passed, punch down the dough and cover again with a kitchen towel. Place in the refrigerator overnight to rise again.
5. Once the dough has risen a second time, preheat the oven to 350F and set a large piece of parchment into a large baking sheet. Make the filling by combining the walnuts, brown sugar, vanilla, agave nectar, and remaining cinnamon. Mix well.
6. Cover the counter with flour and roll out the cold dough into a rectangle of about 10 inches by 20 inches. Spread the filling over the rectangle of dough, leaving 1-inch of clean space around the long edges. Starting from the long edge, tightly roll up the dough into a jellyroll-like log, making sure the seam is on the bottom. Join the ends of the roll, making a ring. Wet your fingers with a little water to help the ends stick together – you can gently massage the dough from one end over the other for a more seamless king cake.
7. Very carefully move the ring to the parchment-covered baking sheet, reforming it as necessary so it’s still very round. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and allow to rise for 45 minutes. Once the dough has doubled in size again, use a soft pastry brush to brush the whole surface with egg wash, making sure not to use so much that it pools around the bottom of the dough. Slide the king cake into the oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Do not over bake or it will dry out! Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before moving on to the next step.
8. From the underside of the cake, push the small plastic baby into the cake so that it is hidden inside. In a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar, vanilla extract, lemon juice, and half of the water. Mix until you’ve got a thick glaze, adding a few drops of water until it’s the right consistency. If the glaze is too runny, add more powdered sugar to thicken it up.
9. Drizzle the cooled king cake with a generous amount of glaze, then sprinkle with colored sugar or sprinkled in a wedge pattern, like the photo above. Slice and enjoy – but first decide what happens to the person who get the slice with the Baby Jesus inside!