King Cake: A Mardi Gras Recipe to End the Season of Indulgence
From the beginning of January to Ash Wednesday, New Orleans celebrates Carnival with parades and king cake — a cake as unique as the city it's made for. You might not be able to throw your own parade, but you can make your own king cake for Fat Tuesday.
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The season of indulgence is revving up and winding down all at the same time in New Orleans. Since Epiphany on January 6, the people of New Orleans have been enthusiastically eating the richest foods and voraciously drinking the finest libations to celebrate Carnival season. While the party lasts about two months, most people know it for its pinnacle: Mardi Gras. This year, Mardi Gras is on Feb 25. Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent, when Christians have to give up all the good stuff until Easter — and in New Orleans, there’s an overabundance of good stuff. One item in particular that is a must at this time of year is king cake.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know that it's a special city steeped in Southern tradition. New Orleanians take their food and parades very seriously. Every Sunday afternoon, you can hear people marching through neighborhoods like Treme or Marigny as if it were a traveling party guided by horns blowing the tune of "If Ever I Cease To Love," and sucking on crawfish right out of a bucket. Even if you don't make it out of the French Quarter, you have the privilege of nibbling on fresh beignets, delighting in pralines (praw-leens, not pray-leens), or feasting on oyster po’ boys slathered in remoulade — you can enjoy those any and all times of year in the Crescent City. But king cake is a Carnival-specific confection that’s only available up until Mardi Gras. In fact, it's the only food made solely for Mardi Gras season.
What Is King Cake?
To understand a Mardi Gras king cake, it’s good to first have a cursory understanding of the Epiphany — a Christian holiday. Epiphany or Feast of the Epiphany, is also known as "Twelfth Night" (as in the twelve days of Christmas) and “Three Kings Day.” It commemorates the evening the three kings (or three wise men) visited baby Jesus after his birth in Bethlehem. In many countries, part of the feast is eating a king cake on January 6, but in New Orleans, bakeries crank out king cakes from January 6 all the way through to Fat Tuesday. The timing is an important detail to note — superstition dictates that king cake eaten outside of Carnival season means a rainy Mardi Gras and no one wants to be the person to rain on that parade.
Ring of Dough The traditional New Orleans king cake looks like a big, colorful doughnut. It’s made of an enriched yeast dough like brioche dough or a yeasted coffee cake and it’s round to symbolize a king’s crown. Every New Orleans bakery produces their interpretation of the cake — some are simple doughs, others are rolled up with brown sugar and ground cinnamon like a cinnamon roll, and some are embellished with nuts or filled with cream cheese.
Tinted Sugar The ring is drizzled with a simple icing and then sprinkled with sugar tinted with traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. The organization that throws the Mardi Gras parade every year is called “Rex” which is the Latin word for king. Purple, gold, and green have been Rex's signature colors since its founding in 1872, but not for any particular reason. However, it was later determined that purple stands for justice, green symbolizes faith, and gold represents power. That's why you see Mardi Gras beads in those colors.
King Cake Baby In the early days of the parade, a bean was baked into the cake. According to Scientific American, this was part of a pagan tradition that evolved into the current Christian tradition and the person who got the piece of cake with the bean had the honor of being “king of the day.” Cultural ambassador and host of Louisiana Eats, Poppy Tooker, told NPR the bean was replaced by porcelain baby dolls in the 1950s. That's when a traveling salesman with a surplus of porcelain babies convinced a king cake bakery owner to replace the beans with the dolls. When those ran out, the bakery owner switched to plastic babies he found at a French Quarter store. Today, if you order a traditional king cake from a New Orleans bakery, the baby is included, but typically on the side and not in a slice of cake. But if you make a cake with the baby inside, the person who gets the slice with the baby has to throw the next king cake party, or they're responsible for bringing one to the next event. We bought our King Cake baby on Amazon.
Procuring Your Prize
Of course, we discourage you from getting a store-bought king cake lest you miss out on baking a plastic baby in the cake but, if you must, it is possible to buy one from a New Orleans bakery even if you're thousands of miles away and it's too hard to get to the Big Easy.
Acquiring a king cake is as simple as ordering one, but it’s not easy. The competition between the bakeries to make the best king cake is fierce and getting your hands on the best one can be a savage experience. King of the king cakes right now is Dong Phuong which is about a half-hour drive from the French Quarter. People are more than willing to make the trek for a taste of this king cake. It’s so popular that in 2018 people allegedly bought the Dong Phuong king cakes and then turned around and sold them at a higher price. To be fair, Dong Phuong did win a James Beard award in 2018, adding to the bakery’s cachet.
France has a version of king cake called galette des rois which is very different from a New Orleans king cake. It’s a tart made with puff pastry and frangipane (almond paste pastry cream). However, like a New Orleans king cake, a figurine is baked into the cake, but it’s typically an animal, not a baby. And instead of colorful sprinkles, the galette des rois is topped with a paper crown and whoever is served the figurine gets to wear the crown.
Mexico has a similar confection: rosca de reyes. It’s a little more similar to the New Orleans king cake than the French version, but you'll find candied cherries on top of the cake and the dough is a much more involved and flavorful recipe. The Portuguese version — the bolo-rei — is much like the Mexican version.
Our King Cake
For our king cake recipe, we used a traditional brioche dough. We also decided to do a cinnamon filling because: CINNAMON. It might sound complicated, and, to be honest, its aesthetics intimidated me for years, but it's actually pretty easy to execute. Here are a few things to note:
Crowning Dough: We used an enriched yeast dough to align with tradition. That just means it calls for eggs, butter, and yeast. If you've never used yeast before, it's nothing to be afraid of — yeast is very forgiving and this is about as easy as yeast doughs get. The one thing you should make note of is if you are using active dry yeast from a packet, you will need slightly more than one packet. A packet of yeast contains 2 1/4 teaspoons and this recipe calls for 1 Tablespoon which is equivalent to 3 teaspoons. Also, we use an egg yolk in addition to the whole egg because yolks make this kind of dough moister.
Cinnamon Swagger: We pile the cinnamon up in one long line along the length of the dough rather than creating a thin layer of cinnamon and sugar on the entirety of the dough the way you would for a cinnamon roll. This way the cinnamon is enrobed in dough rather than twisted. This makes it easy to discretely hide the plastic baby, as well as making it easier to connect the ends of the dough to make a ring.
Festive Form: For this recipe we roll out the dough with a rolling pin to make a long rectangle before adding the cinnamon. It's best to transfer the dough at this point to the parchment paper-lined baking sheet. If you have a cookie sheet without a rim, that is best so that you can roll the dough up and shape it on the pan. This is important because it's difficult to transfer the ring from your workspace to the baking sheet. If your baking sheet is rimmed, you can transfer the rectangle of dough from your workspace to the parchment paper, fill it and shape it on the parchment paper and then transfer it to the baking sheet using the parchment paper as a sort of gurney for pastries.
All That Glitters Is Tasty: Once your ring is baked, you'll transfer it to a cooling rack to cool completely before drizzling it with icing. Before you apply the icing, it's best to place your cooling rack over a baking sheet to catch the excess icing. It should be fairly thick, but there will be some runoff that you can reapply to the cake. Make sure to sprinkle the tinted sugar while the icing is still wet so the sugar sticks to the cake.
Since the time to eat king cake is limited, you probably have a better chance at making your next king cake than ordering one in time for Fat Tuesday, and this is a stellar king cake recipe for your Mardi Gras celebration. It's so good, you might even choose to host your own king cake party next year rather than letting the baby decide. Until then, laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!