I did not know what a King Cake was until last year, when I arrived in the States and decided to have a little Mardi Gras party. I basically had the drink part covered. Having spent some time in New Orleans I knew that Hurricanes and Bloody Marys would be part of the feast. But as far as the food was concerned I wanted to be authentic while avoiding fried nibbles. I guess I’m just not a Southern girl… Adieu, beignets and fried oysters, bonjour gumbo. My husband, who is from Louisiana, has mastered the art of authentic gumbo (but that will be for another post). It’s actually one of the five dishes he can make. Yes, five. The man thinks he can’t cook even though he makes a mean gumbo. Don’t ask…
Now that the main course was under control, we needed to figure out the dessert, because what is a party without a dessert? Again my husband, being faithful to his Louisianan roots, suggested making a king cake. Challenge accepted!
In France we also have king cakes (“galette des rois”) that we traditionally eat on the Epiphany. Depending on where you are in France, North or South, your king cake will either be a puff pastry layers with generally an almond filling (frangipane) or a brioche garnished with candied fruits, the latter being very similar to the New Orleans version. I put a lot of work and effort into the baking process, reading and comparing dozens of recipes, trying to find the right one. A difficult task when you’ve never tasted it before…
All in all, the king cake turned out well. My husband was smitten with the result, but, to be honest, I found it pretty underwhelming. I was hoping for something similar to the texture of a brioche – moist, soft and buttery – and ended with something bread-like – rather plain (despite the cinnamon filling) and on the dry side. Em and I took this into account while making this batch and decided to integrate cake flour. I used to be skeptical about it. What can it make that all-purpose flour can’t? Why should I pay a couple of extra dollars for it? For years I simply ignored it, but, to be fair, it really makes a difference. Cake flour is made of softer grains containing less gluten than all-purpose flour, therefore giving more tenderness to your cake.
In the name of science, Em and I also decided to bake a plain cake and a cinnamon-filled one, which is said to be more traditional.
yields 2 king cakes, 1 plain and 1 cinnamon-filled
For the dough
- 2 (1 1/4-oz.) packages dry active yeast
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 3 1/4 cup bread flour
- 2 tablespoon honey
- 1 1/2 cup cake flour
- 4 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolk
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 plastic baby trinkets (optional; see below)
For the cinnamon filling (double quantities if you want to make 2 cinnamon-filled cakes)
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons of melted butter
For the egg wash
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon milk
For the icing
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 2 tablespoons agave syrup
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- purple, green and gold sparkling sugar
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the yeast with the warm milk and whisk until dissolved. We used whole milk and noticed that the yeast became clumpy. We had never seen that before and started to think we might have done something wrong. Not a good sign for the rest of our recipe… After doing a quick Google search we learned that milk fat can prevent water from entering and dissolving the yeast. If you come across the same problem, just keep whisking the yeast every few minutes until it dissolves and starts bubbling.
Add 3/4 cup of bread flour and the honey and mix on low speed using the paddle attachment for about 1 minute, until the preparation is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in volume, about 25 minutes.
Add 1 1/2 cup of the remaining bread flour, the cake flour, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and almond extracts, and salt. Mix on low speed until combined. Switch to a dough hook and beat until smooth for about 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and begin adding the stick of butter 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well between additions. Continue to knead until a soft dough forms. If necessary, add up to 1/3 cup of the reserved bread flour using a spoon.
Grease a large bowl with some of the remaining butter and place the dough into it, turning it so that all of the surface area is coated with butter. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and a hand towel and place it in a warm, draft-free area until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Yes, for an hour we became dough-whisperers. I like to think that it’s like taking care of plants: It’s said that the more you talk to them, the better they grow. Yeast is a living organism after all; there’s nothing crazy about talking to it: “Rise, little prince, to become a king someday…”
If you decide to make a cinnamon-filled cake, take the opportunity while the dough is rising to prepare the cinnamon filling. Mix the melted butter, cinnamon and sugar in a medium bowl and stir to fully combine. Double the quantities if you make 2 cinnamon-filled cakes. Skip this step, obviously, if you’re just making the plain version.
Once the dough has doubled in size, generously flour your work surface with the remaining bread flour. Punch down the dough and divide in half. Place on the work surface, sprinkle the top with flour and roll into a 24×6-inch rectangle and roll it, jellyroll-style, making a long, thin rope. Pinch the ends to seal and bring them together to form a circle. Press the edges together to seal.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper greased with remaining butter and carefully transfer the dough to one of them. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise in a warm, dry spot for about 1 hour, until it doubles in size.
Again, flour your work surface with what’s left of the bread flour. Transfer the other half of the dough onto it, sprinkle with flour and roll into a 22×12-inch rectangle.
Spread the cinnamon sugar mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border around the outside of the dough. Roll up, seal the ends, form a circle and pinch the edges together. Place on the other baking sheet, seam side down, and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise for 1 hour. Again, I would highly recommend talking to your dough. Not that it helps but it’s certainly entertaining.
Heat oven to 375 °F. Prepare the egg wash by whisking the egg and the milk together in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash over the top and sides of the cakes, and bake them one after the other in the upper third of the oven for about 25 minutes, until golden brown. Immediately transfer to a cooling rack, wait 5 minutes and make a small incision in the bottom of each cake to insert a baby figurine. Let cool completely before icing the cakes.
To make the icing, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, agave syrup, milk and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth.
Spoon the icing evenly over the cake and, before it has a chance to set, sprinkle colored sugar, alternating colors to form strips. If you’re a purist, use purple, gold and green as they’re the colors of Mardi Gras and symbolise justice, power and faith. This is exactly the kind of trivia that will impress you guests during your Mardi Gras party.
By the way, did I mention that whoever gets the baby has to host the next King Cake party? Talk about pressure for the guests, huh?
Judging by the small quantity left, the cakes were a hit. While I might be slightly partial to the cinnamon one, which reminds me of a softer, less gooey cinnamon roll, Em preferred the plain version. I think that outside of Carnival season it would actually make a perfect breakfast treat – minus the glittery icing. This King Cake recipe is our new favorite way to celebrate Mardi Gras, and now that we have a good base, we might try next year to be more creative with the filling. Possibilities are endless…
Celebrate Mardi Gras as if you were in New Orleans and, as they say in Louisiana, laissez les bons temps rouler…