A few years ago, I made a king cake for the boy I was dating. I sent him home with it so he could share it with his family because a) baking is a good way to show a boy you like him, and b) baking is a good way to get said boy’s family to like you. When I asked him how everyone had liked it, he told me it was delicious, but that there had been a small issue with the plastic baby I had hidden inside the cake. Apparently his dad hadn’t been forewarned about this Mardi Gras tradition and found it inside his piece. When his daughter asked him what he did with it, he said he had thrown it away…to which she responded, “YOU THREW THE BABY JESUS AWAY?!?!”
I’m really not sure if that’s a had-to-be-there kind of story. Apologies if it is. A king cake should make it up to you.
King cake is – aside from cupcakes that contain peanut butter in some form – probably my favorite kind of cake, to buy, eat, or make. And to eat.
Why to buy? There are so many quality bakeries in New Orleans o buy them from, and it’s fun listening to people argue passionately about which is the best. My vote goes for Randazzo’s, although Rouse’s Supermarkets make pretty good versions themselves.
Why to eat? Uhhh. People. These things shouldn’t require explanations, but in case you need convincing…
King cakes involve tender, sweet coffee cake dough…some sort of filling (cinnamon and praline being my faves)…icing…and colored sugars. Again, that’s dough, filling, icing, sugar. Swoon.
And why to make? Because a king cake looks and tastes and smells like a true labor of love. It’s yeasted dough, which always makes people think you’ve been slaving away for days just for their one slice of cake. There may be some rolling and twisting involved. But the secret is – and don’t tell anyone this or your king cakes may depreciate in value – they really aren’t that difficult to make. People say these things all the time, I know, and then you end up with a failed mess in your oven. That won’t happen with this king cake. Pinky swear.
I make king cakes every year, and every year I forget to save the recipe I used. Thank goodness for the blog. Next year I’ll know I used John Besh’s dough and icing recipe. John Besh is a southern/New Orleans cuisine genius, so using his dough recipe was a no-brainer. (Even his restaurant inside the World War II museum is fantastic.)
His recipe is for an unfilled cake, so I searched for a filling recipe and settled on one from AllRecipes. I adore brown sugary, pecan-y, cinnamon-y fillings. I love thick, dense fillings – not just some swirl of cinnamon sugar. Lame. There’s a reason this party is called Fat Tuesday. You might as well indulge, even if you’re decidedly not Catholic (read: Jewish) and won’t be partaking in Lent. This filling recipe fit the bill, since it includes flour and plenty of brown sugar and butter.
This is a party cake people. Clearly, what with the tiny plastic baby hiding somewhere inside the cake. Note: tiny plastic babies can be found at cake decorating stores. You can also use a large dried bean, like a fava bean, which doesn’t look like a baby at all, but is an acceptable substitute nonetheless.
I only made two minor changes to the dough recipe. Since I knew I would be using cinnamon in the filling, I didn’t use all of the cinnamon originally called for the dough – reduced from 3 tsp to 2 tsp. I also didn’t have any un-zested lemons lying around (life gets weird when you bake all the time), so I used orange zest in the dough. For the filling, I got rid of the raisins because they seemed out of place in a king cake…but they would be yummy fo sho. I also reduced the cinnamon by a little bit and upped the pecans.
Two things that may scare you that shouldn’t: king cake that gets a little brown and icing that uses powdered sugar AND sweetened condensed milk. The dough has a lot of butter in it, so it will brown on top even if you bake it correctly. It will be perfect in the middle, and it won’t be burned. I promise. The condensed milk gives the icing a fantastic texture…it gets hard on the surface like a glaze, but it stays luscious and smooth under the surface. Perfect for icing hoarders like yours truly.
Praline-Filled King Cake
Makes one large cake, serves about 12
For the cake
1 cup whole mike, warmed to 110º-120ºF
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 envelopes active dry yeast
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 cup (= 2 sticks) melted unsalted butter, cooled to warm
5 egg yolks, from large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp grated lemon or orange zest
2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (or just several gratings of fresh)
For the filling
1 cup brown sugar, packed (I used light, but the deeper flavor of dark brown would work nicely in the cake
3/4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 to 1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (= 1 stick) melted unsalted butter
For the icing
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
green, gold, and purple decorating sugars (ok, I won’t lie…I layered prepared red and blue sugar because I didn’t have the right food coloring to make purple)
a plastic baby or fava bean (do NOT put this in the cake until after you’ve baked it!)
1. For cake – In a large bowl, whisk together the warm milk, granulated sugar, yeast, and
1 TBS of the flour. Let stand until the yeast bubbles and foams and comes back to life, about 8 minutes. Add the butter (make sure it’s not hot), eggs, vanilla, and orange zest and whisk until combined. Add the rest of the flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is incorporated. The dough will begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl when it’s ready; you can add more flour about a tablespoon at a time to reach this state. The dough will still be sticky though. Let it be sticky!
2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10-15 minutes. Put the dough back in the bowl (no need to oil it, there’s enough butter in the dough). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then a kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
3. For filling – While the dough is rising, make the filling. Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans, and flour in a small bowl. Pour the melted butter over the mixture and mix until crumbly.
4. To shape dough – Preheat the oven to 375F with a rack in the middle position. Punch down risen dough and divide in half. Let dough rest for about 5 minutes. On a floured surface, roll out one portion of dough into a rectangle that’s roughly 10×16 inches. (We’re not going for a perfect shape here, approximate size and rounded corners are fine.) Scatter half the filling over the rectangle. Spread the filling out a little bit, making sure you reach the short edges. The filling doesn’t have to be evenly spread – it’s ok if there are spaces without filling. Perfectionists: take a deep breath and let it go.
Starting at a long side of the rectangle, roll the dough up tightly, like cinnamon rolls, and press the seam together when you get to the end. Repeat this rolling/filling/rolling process with the other half of the dough.
5. Place both logs of dough (lifting carefully) on a greased baking sheet, side by side, curving them if necessary to fit on the pan. Press two of the ends together, then twist the logs together tightly, one over the other, curving the twist into an oval shape to make the ends of the twist meet.
Press the ends together to seal into an oval ring. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut a few slits in the top of the cake.
6. Bake the cake until golden brown (if it’s a little darker, don’t worry), about 30 minutes (internal temperature should be 185-190F). Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing – While the cake cools, make the icing. Stir together the powdered sugar and condensed milk, then stir in the lemon juice. (If your icing is too thick, you can add a little regular milk to reach the desired consistency. You want spreadable, not thin like a glaze, but not stiff like a buttercream.) Spread the icing over the coooled cake with an offset spatula. Sprinkle colored sugars over the wet icing. If using, press the plastic baby/bean into the bottom of the cake. Time to party it up! King cake will keep, covered or in an airtight container, for 3 days.
It is totes acceptable to eat king cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And obvs dessert. If you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, catch some beads for me! If you’re stuck somewhere else, never fear. King cake is reason enough for a party! Let me know how they turn out…thanks for reading, happy baking!