The Mardi Gras King Cake
The King Cake, not really a cake–more of a pastry with a delicious sweet filling, iced with powdered sugar icing and decorated in traditional Mardi Gras colors of gold, green and purple.
It is generally thought that the King Cake originated in France around the 12th century to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—the Christian tradition celebrating the coming of the three gift-bearing Kings, or Wise Men, to the Christ child. French and Spanish settlers brought the tradition of the King Cake to the U.S Gulf Coast around the 18th century.
The description of the original King Cakes differ depending on the source, but most likely the original cakes were a simple pastry, probably like a brioche, containing a few dried fruits. Inside the pastry was a hidden bean, coin, or figure. Whoever found the hidden treasure when the cake was cut was declared “King of the Feast,” and would be blessed with good luck for the coming year.
While I prefer the more simple cakes filled with cinnamon, sugar, nuts and raisins, culinary innovation has produced some amazingly rich and delicious variations. The last time I was in New Orleans I had versions that were filled with chocolate and nuts, cream cheese and fruits, and even a praline based filling—it was rich enough to make my back teeth ache, but oh, so very yummy!
The best part of the King Cake is the tradition. Whoever finds the hidden treasure, usually a small plastic baby these days, is still said to be blessed with good luck for the coming year, but now they get to buy the next King Cake.
An office I worked in had an interesting twist on that tradition. We always had a cake at the after-work happy hour during the Mardi Gras season. Whoever found the baby bought the first round of drinks.
No matter the tradition you decide to celebrate, a King Cake is a simple and delicious pastry to make. The most popular version of King Cake in the Gulf Coast is the yeast bread version. It will take a couple of hours to make, but hands-on time is about 30 to 45 minutes. The rest of the time, the yeast will do all the work.
If you are hosting a New Orleans themed Big Game or Mardi Gras party, I recommend a King Cake. It’s a delicious way to celebrate with friends and loved ones!
Your Turn: What is your favorite food tradition?
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 packages active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water (110 degrees, slightly warmer than body temperature)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1-1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup melted butter
1 plastic baby, or other treasure to hide
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 tablespoon cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla, or to taste
Colored sugar in gold, green, and purple
In a small saucepan, scald the milk (heat to 180 degrees). Add the butter, and let melt. Allow the milk to cool to 110 degrees before using. Note: Scalding the milk to 180 degrees will help break down the milk protein and help the bread rise higher. However, it is important to let the scalded milk cool down (to 110 degrees) before adding it to the yeast. If the milk is too hot it will kill the yeast on contact.
While the milk is cooling, in a large mixing bowl add the yeast, warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Whisk to combine. Let stand 10 minutes until yeast begins to foam.
Add the cooled milk and eggs. Whisk to combine. Add remaining sugar and nutmeg, and stir to combine. Sift salt and flour together, and add a cup at a time into milk mixture until dough begins to pull together. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly buttered bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with a warm, damp towel and place in a warm dry area to rise until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans, flour and raisins for the filling, and stir to combine and evenly coat. Pour melted butter over mixture and stir to combine.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or lightly grease.
Once dough has doubled, punch down, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Use a rolling pin to roll out dough into a large rectangle. Sprinkle filling mixture over the surface of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Starting with the long edge, roll the dough into a log, similar to a cinnamon roll. Bring the two ends together to create a ring.
Place the ring on the prepared baking sheet. Cover with a warm, damp towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through. Let the pastry cool 10 minutes, and then push the “baby” into the cake through the bottom.
In a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar, cream and vanilla and stir to combine. Spread the icing across the surface of the cake. Sprinkle colored sugar over the top of the icing, dividing each color into individual sections, if desired.