Looking for a king cake recipe? Here’s another one to add to your list!
As many of you already know, I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Yet despite having lived there for nearly two decades, and eating probably hundreds of store-bought king cakes, I had never made a homemade king cake myself. Until today, that is.
Some of you may be asking, what is this crazy girl talking about…what on earth is a king cake? I’ve gotten this response from many people I’ve met during my travels across the U.S. and abroad. But this piece of culinary history is both delicious and just downright fun. And since this blog is all about celebrating the meaning behind the food we eat, I thought I’d share with you the history of this New Orleans Mardi Gras delicacy as well as a traditional recipe for it.
King cake has its roots in Christianity, but people of all faiths enjoy it throughout Mardi Gras (aka, Carnival) season in New Orleans. In the Christian faith, it is said that on the twelfth night after the birth of Christ, or January 6th on the modern calendar, three wise men (or women) brought gifts to baby Jesus. The king cake is a cake that is meant to honor these three wise people. It is served throughout the Greater New Orleans area beginning on January 6th, the start of Mardi Gras season, up until Mardi Gras day, the gluttonous “Fat Tuesday” that occurs the day before the start of Lent.
King cakes are typically circular or ovular in shape and are decorated with the three festive Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. The three distinct colors are said to symbolize the three distinct wise people. The cake is then stuffed, and I know this probably sounds strange if you’re not from New Orleans, with a tiny plastic baby, which is said to represent baby Jesus.
Now the history behind the cake is just as important as the way in which it’s eaten in present day. I can’t even count how many king cakes I’ve bitten into, in part because if you live in New Orleans it’s possible that you’ll have a slice of dozens of king cakes in just one single Mardi Gras season. They’re at parties, in the workplace, and kids even bring them to school daily when Carnival is upon us. Now remember how I said there’s a tiny (somewhat creepy, if I’m being totally honest) plastic baby hidden inside each cake? Well if yours is the slice that contains the baby, celebrate! You are the chosen one. Plus who wouldn’t feel awesome biting into a piece of cake containing a tiny baby in it? But you should also know that getting the baby comes with a serious responsibility: the responsibility to bring another king cake to the group on the following day.
So there you have it, the story behind a food that’s central to the culture of an entire city, rich with tradition, and rooted in religious history. Not to mention the cake is just damn beautiful to look at and even better to eat. But don’t take my word for it, go for the (purple, green, and) gold and make it yourself! The recipe below is for a cream-cheese filled king cake. It has flavors that resemble a cheese Danish with cinnamon swirled in. It’s then topped off with melted sugar icing and sprinkled with, you guessed it, more sugar…We don’t call it “Fat Tuesday” for nothin’!
So go out and celebrate these next few days leading up to Mardi Gras Day. Go nuts. Drink, eat, party, and enjoy. Drink more. Dress up. Dress down. Indulge yourself. Because at Mardi Gras in the Big Easy, you can always have your cake and eat it too.
PS: This is what happens every time I make any kind of dough. Literally…Every. Single. Time.
Mardi Gras King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling
For the Cake:
- 1 (16-oz) container of plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1/3 cup of sugar
- 5 tablespoons of butter
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 4.5 teaspoons of active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 6 cups of bread flour (plus more if necessary)
- ¾ cups of sugar
- 1 8oz package of cream cheese, softened
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 5 tablespoons of butter, softened
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1.5 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
Begin by skipping to the colored sugar (at the bottom of this recipe.) Once sugar is finished, come back to begin work on the cake.
Combine the first 5 ingredients in a saucepan over low heat until butter melts, stirring frequently. Set aside and allow to cool while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a bowl. After it has risen slightly, about 10 minutes, pour it into a large mixing bowl (or KitchenAid bowl if you have one) along with the yogurt mixture, 2 eggs, and 2 cups of bread flour. Beat at medium speed until blended. Reduce the speed to low and add 4 more cups of bread flour, one at a time. The dough should be in a nice ball at this point. If the dough is not pulling away from the sides of the bowl, you can add a little more flour.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until smooth, about 5-10 minutes. Place in a butter-greased bowl, cover with a damp (with warm water) paper towel, and allow to rest for 1 hour. Make sure it rests in a warm place (at least 85 degrees Farenheit.) If it’s too cold, it will not rise properly. I like to turn the oven on just for a few minutes right before the dough goes in. Then I turn it off, allow it to air out a bit (you definitely don’t want it hot in the oven) and I let the dough rise in the semi-warm oven.
While dough is rising, make the cream cheese filling. Beat ¾ cups of sugar, softened cream cheese, 1 egg, and vanilla until smooth. Set aside.
Once the dough ball has nearly doubled in size, punch it down and divide it into two equal parts. Roll each part into a rectangle (or as close to a rectangle shape as you can get it.) It should be about 22 inches long and 12 inches wide. Take the remaining 5 tablespoons of softened butter and spread it all over the dough rectangle, stopping 1 inch before the edges. Combine the remaining ½ cup of sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly all over the butter layer. Then take the cream cheese filling and spread a 2-3 inch thick line of it along the long edge of the dough rectangle. Again, do not go past 1 inch from the edge.
Starting on the long edge with the cream cheese, begin rolling, making sure to tuck the cream cheese in the beginning of the roll. Place on a greased baking sheet, seam side down. Pull together the ends of the roll to form an oval or a circle and push together tightly. Seal by pinching off with water. This part is important! If it’s not sealed properly, the cream cheese will all leak out during baking.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover dough circle, again with a warm damp paper towel, and leave in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes.
Once it is done resting, remove the paper towel and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden on the outside. While cake is baking, prepare the glaze and the colored sugars, if you haven’t already. Remove cake from the oven, drizzle all over with glaze and top with colored sugar. (See glaze and sugar topping instructions below.)
Most recipes would tell you to allow the cake to cool before adding the topping. I say screw that, top away and enjoy while hot!
For the Icing Glaze:
- 3 cups of powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons of butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 3-5 tablespoons of milk
Mix together first four ingredients. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of milk. Examine the consistency and add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired thickness in the glaze.
For the Sugar Topping:
- 1.5 cups of granulated sugar, divided into 3 parts
- purple, green, and yellow food coloring
Pour the sugar (divided) onto 3 separate plates. Add a little food coloring and mash with a fork until well mixed. Keep adding food coloring, mixing after each addition, until you get to your desired color intensity.
Set aside for one hour to dry. Once dry, mash with a fork again to break up any clumps that are sticking together. Sprinkle over cake, alternating colors by section.
Recipe adapted from Southern Living.
You can omit the cream cheese filling for a plain King Cake.
Makes 2 king cakes. Each king cake serves approximately 8 people.