A consequence of never having spent much time in the Southern U.S. is that I've missed out on delicious regional treats. Like king cake!
Apparently king cake is a really big deal in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. But living here in California, I'd never seen or even heard of king cake until I was looking around for Mardi Gras recipes to make for the blog here. Recipes for king cake kept popping up, and I decided the fact that it's baked would make it a safer choice than beignets, because as you might recall, frying is not my forte.
If you've ever made yeast bread — or even better, cinnamon rolls — this recipe shouldn't be too difficult for you. It's pretty much the same dough. I did adjust the recipe to reflect the fact that I don't have a food processor; if you do, you might want to check out the original recipe and follow the directions there.
The only part where I ran into trouble was where you roll up sections of dough and braid them together. I think my dough rolls might have been too chubby, or maybe it's just that my braiding skills are subpar. Whatever the problem, I couldn't manage to form my dough into a nice braided wreath.
It looked more like a misshapen blob.
But I didn't feel too bad about it, since king cakes aren't the prettiest baked goods out there. And it still tasted great.
Since I'm not super familiar with king cake, I'm not sure what the king cake ideal is. This one was like sweet bread (not to be confused with sweetbread) with cream cheese strewn about the middle, topped with a tangy lemon icing. I would have liked more cream cheese filling, but I'm not sure whether that'd be possible for me to achieve without making an even bigger mess of this cake than I already did.
Oh, and traditionally, you're supposed to stick something like a little plastic baby, a piece of hard candy, a gold coin or a bean inside the cake. I didn't do that, because I planned to bring it to work, and I didn't want anyone to choke or break a tooth or something.
Recipe: Mardi Gras king cake
For the cake
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup milk, warmed
- 4¾ cups flour, plus more for the work surface
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Finely grated zest from ½ lemon (1 teaspoon)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking sheet, at room temperature
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 tiny plastic baby or hard candy (optional)
For the filling
- 8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, at room temperature
- ¼ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 large egg yolk
- Freshly squeezed juice from ½ lemon (1 teaspoon)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the egg wash
- 1 large egg white
- 1 tablespoon milk
For the icing
- 4 cups confectioners' sugar
- 8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Finely grated zest from 1 or 2 lemons; freshly squeezed juice from 3½ small lemons (1½ teaspoons zest; ½ cup juice)
- Purple, green and gold sugar (I used lavender, dark green and yellow sugar)
- To make the cake, put the water in a bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. When it's dissolved, add 1 tablespoon of sugar and the warm (not hot!) milk. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes; it'll get puffy.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon zest.
- Cream the butter and the remaining sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, then add the yeast mixture and mix until the dough forms a ball. (If the dough is too sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time; if it's too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time.)
- Coat a large bowl with vegetable oil, add the dough, and cover it with plastic wrap. Let the bowl of dough sit in a warm, dry place for at least 2 hours, until the dough doubles in volume.
- While the dough is rising, make the filling. Beat the cream cheese, sugar, flour, egg yolk, lemon juice and vanilla extract in a bowl until smooth. Set aside.
- Butter a large baking sheet, and lightly flour a work surface. When the dough has doubled, punch it down a couple of times, and then divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll out one piece on the floured work surface to a rectangle about 12 inches by 4 inches with a thickness of about 3/8 inch. Spread one-third of the cream cheese filling over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border of dough on each side. Then roll up the long side of the dough, jelly-roll style, and pinch the edges to seal. Repeat with the two remaining pieces of dough.
- Braid the 3 ropes of dough together, then wrap the braid into a circle. (My braid turned out too fat to make a circle. Oh well.) If you're putting a foreign object into your king cake, stick it where the ends come together, and pinch the ends to seal, smoothing the dough to hide the seam. Put your circle of dough on the buttered-up baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit for 45 minutes, or until the dough doubles in volume.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- For the egg wash, whisk together the egg white and milk in a small bowl, and brush it over the top of the braided dough.
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden or until an instant-read thermometer reads 200˚ to 210˚F. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack, and let the cake cool completely.
- For the icing, beat the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on low speed until smooth. Add the lemon juice and lemon zest, and beat until smooth, which might take a very long time. Like, 15 minutes or so. (I just left my mixer running while I chatted on Facebook, and after a while it had smoothed out just fine.)
- Pour the lemon icing over the cake, and immediately sprinkle with colored sugar. Let the icing set before serving.
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