Have you ever been to New Orleans? I have a few times, including a three week stint of post-Hurricane Katrina relief work, but I’ve never been for Mardi Gras.
As a college student in Texas, it occurred to me that it might be a fun thing to do once (I’m very into road trips), but then I remembered that I am a tried and true introvert and that spending a weekend in a loud, crowded city might be my idea of hell…
…so I moved to New York City instead. It never gets loud and crowded here 🙂
But back to Mardi Gras…
While I love the idea of a whole state with its own unique way of celebrating a holiday, my party days are well behind me and I don’t envision any circumstance in which I’ll ever find myself in Louisiana in early February. But I love King Cake. I mostly associate it with Epiphany (or Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night or January 6th, or whatever you call it), but I’m okay for breaking with personal traditions if it means I get to eat this:
If you’ve somehow never had King Cake, you’re in for a treat. It’s a fluffy yeasted coffee cake served in Louisiana (and lots of other places) in the religious season between Christmas and Lent. To describe King Cake plainly, it’s sort of like cinnamon rolls that aren’t cut up. In fact, the dough I used here is just a variation on my favorite sweet roll recipe. It’s just a little richer and even more tender than that dough, and it’s flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. Mmhmm.
From what I can tell from all my research, if you have a flavor preference, there is a King Cake recipe out there for you. The traditional filling is a mixture of butter and cinnamon-sugar (again, like cinnamon rolls), but I have seen pecan praline, strawberry, and cherry-almond variations. I have become entranced by the idea of cream cheese filling, so I did a little mash-up of my own: cinnamon cream cheese, y’all!
The filling is rolled up into the dough like it is in sweet rolls. The cylinder of dough is formed into a ring and set aside to rise for about an hour, until it doubles in size. Then it’s painted with an egg wash and baked until golden brown all over.
King Cakes are traditionally decorated with a thick white icing and yellow, green, and purple sugars (representing power, faith, and justice, respectively). I had a hard time tracking down sugars in the appropriate colors, so I just stirred a few drops of food coloring into 1/3 cup increments of granulated sugar.
A tiny plastic baby doll is also traditionally inserted into the cake after baking. The person who receives the slice with the baby doll is king/queen for the day and is responsible for procuring next year’s cake. I didn’t put a doll in this cake because I simply don’t have it together enough to remember to order things in time for scheduled blog posts. But anyway…
If you love the look of the golden cake, the white icing, and the sparkling, colorful sugars, just wait ‘til you slice it up.
That swirl y’all! And the soft, fluffy interior! And the cinnamon in the cake and the filling! And the cream cheese! It’s a win all around 🙂
One last thing: this recipe makes two King Cakes. Before you click away, never to return, here is a list of reasons to have two King Cakes.
- It takes just as long to make one as it does to make two. Trust me on this.
- It’s party food, so it’s good to have extra.
- Need I say again that it bears a lot of similarities to cinnamon rolls? Best weekend breakfast ever!
- You can freeze the second one. Do it after it’s baked/before it’s iced.
- Or be the best friend/neighbor ever and give it away.
- Or even put the spare in the break room at work.
- Or call me and I will come help you eat it.
makes 2 cakes
5 1/2-6 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast (I use Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise Yeast)
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher or sea salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large eggs + 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
16 ounces (2 bricks) full-fat bricks-style cream cheese, cool room temperature
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 teaspoon water
Icing & Garnish:
3 cups confectioners sugar
pinch of Kosher or sea salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4-5 tablespoons milk
2 small plastic baby dolls
yellow, green, and purple sprinkles or sugars
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 5 cups all-purpose flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, instant yeast, and salt. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat buttermilk and butter until hot to the touch, about 115F. Buttermilk may curdle—this is fine, if less than beautiful.
Places eggs and yolks in a small bowl and beat lightly with a fork.
Use a silicone spatula or wooden spoon to fold warm buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients, followed by eggs. Add more all-purpose flour by the 1/4 cup until dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Knead the dough for 7 minutes on a floured surface before forming into a ball and placing in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 10 minutes.
Make the filling. Use an electric mixer to beat cream cheese, dark brown sugar, and cinnamon until combined. Beat in egg and vanilla.
Line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, use a large sharp chef’s knife to cut dough into two pieces. Place one half back in the oiled bowl and cover again with plastic wrap. Roll the other half into a 10×28-inch rectangle. Spoon half the filling over the dough and use a silicone spatula or offset knife to spread mixture over the surface, leaving a 1/2-inch perimeter on all sides. Starting with the long edge furthest from your body, tightly roll filled dough toward you, smoothing any seams with your thumbs. A small amount of filling may squish out—just wipe it off and move on. Carefully lift the cylinder of dough onto one of the parchment-lined pans. Shape into a circle and tuck and seal ends together (a finger dipped in water may help with this). Loosely cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm draft-free environment for 60-90 minutes, until cake has doubled in size. Repeat process with remaining dough.
Place oven racks in the second-from-top and second-from-bottom positions. Preheat oven to 375F.
Once cakes have risen, make egg wash. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and water. Use a pastry brush to brush glaze all over the cakes, being careful not to tear the dough. Bake cakes for 12 minutes. Rotate pans top-to-bottom and front-to-back. Bake an additional 10-13 minutes or until cakes are golden brown all over and cooked through.
Let cakes cool completely on pans on racks.
Make icing. In a small bowl, use a fork to whisk together confectioners sugar and salt. Whisk in vanilla and milk. Icing should be very thick, but pourable.
Place cakes on serving dishes. Cut a small hole in the bottom of each and insert a small plastic baby doll.
Ice the cakes. Working with one cake at a time, pour half the icing onto the surface. Use an offset knife to coax icing over the top of the cake. Decorate with sprinkles or sugars as desired. Before decorating the second cake, give icing a stir—it may have thickened slightly. If necessary, add milk by the teaspoon until it returns to the desired consistency. Repeat icing and decorating process with the second cake. Icing should set after 20 minutes.
King Cakes are best the day they’re made, but will keep covered at room temperature for a day or two.