Dense, rich and a traditional treat, the King Cake is a festive dessert lavishly devoured during Mardi Gras season.
The meaning of King Cake
Delectably sweet and a traditional Mardi Gras treat, the King Cake is a festive dessert served for the period between the Twelfth Night (January 6) and Ash Wednesday. The history of the King Cake began in 12th century France, where a cake was baked on the eve of January 6th to celebrate the three Kings’ visit and gifts to the Christ child. The cake, which more resembles a rich bread than a cake, is iced and coated in traditional Mardi Gras colors which symbolize the significance of the gifts of the three Kings: green (representing faith), gold (representing power), and purple (representing justice).
A sweet excuse for a party
During Mardi Gras season, King Cake parties are customarily held on Friday evenings. Inside each King Cake is a little plastic baby doll, representing the Christ child. Whoever gets the “lucky” slice of cake must throw the next King Cake party. King Cakes are ubiquitous in New Orleans during Mardi Gras but bakeries throughout the States bake them in celebration of the season.
Order one or bake your own
The King Cake gives people a reason to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Even if your local bakery does not offer King Cakes, you can easily bake one at home. Invite your friends and family and make an afternoon of it. Because the King Cake is similar to brioche, it takes a few hours to prepare. Enjoy your company while the dough is rising and rally your guests to help you frost and sugar when the cake is done.
King Cake Recipe
1/2 cup warm water (100-115 degrees F.)
2 tablespoons yeast
1/2 cup sugar
3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon minced lemon zest
1/2 cup warm milk
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened at room temperature
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 to 6 tablespoons water
1 tiny 1-inch plastic baby doll*
Colored sugar (green, yellow, and purple)
1. Sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar over warm water in a small, shallow bowl. Allow yeast to dissolve, about 5 minutes, then stir. Set aside until yeast becomes frothy and has doubled in size, about 10 minutes.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine 3-1/2 cups flour, sugar, nutmeg, lemon zest and salt. In mixing bowl of a standup mixer or food processor, combine yeast, milk and egg yolks. Gradually add dry ingredients, and softened butter, adding additional flour, as necessary to achieve a medium-soft ball. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead dough, adding flour if necessary, until smooth, shiny and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place dough in a covered, buttered bowl, in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
3. In the meantime, butter a large baking sheet and set aside. When dough has risen, remove and punch down. Sprinkle with cinnamon and form into a cylinder, then twist this cylinder into a circle. Pinch the ends together to complete the circle. Once again, cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack completely then press baby doll into cake, submerging it under the crust
5. While cake is baking, make the icing. Mix sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons of water until mixture is smooth, adding more water as necessary to achieve a smooth, spreadable consistency. Spread icing over cake and immediately sprinkle colored sugar in alternating rows of colors.
*Plastic baby dolls are available at most craft stores.