Hey Y’all, do you know what tomorrow is? It’s FAT TUESDAY (the day before Ash Wednesday, and the last day to indulge before Lent, when you may be fasting or sacrificing some of your indulgences), so what better way to celebrate than with a King Cake!
Now, my Iowa peeps may not know much about King Cakes, because they are typically a New Orleans thing. I’ve only been to New Orleans once myself, so I’m certainly not an expert. When I decided to try my hand at making one, I did a little research. My inquiring mind wanted to know:
- Why is it called a King cake?
- Why does there seem to be so many different version of this cake?
- Why are they colored purple, yellow and green?
- And finally, what’s with the plastic baby jammed inside?
In case you’re wondering the same things, I now present you with a brief history lesson, courtesy of Three Men and a Baby: A Brief History of King Cakes :
The King Cake accompanies festivities to commemorate the Epiphany, the day the Magi (interpreted by some to mean “kings”) arrived in Bethlehem and presented gifts to baby Jesus the twelfth night after his birth. The cake is a reenactment of Epiphany, with a bean or baby figurine baked into the cake to symbolize Christ and is eaten throughout Carnival festivities.
When it was introduced to New Orleans, the type of cake varied depending on the region in France the settlers were from. In northern France, the confection is usually a flaky puff pastry filled with almond cream; the cake served today is more typical of southern France–a sweet yeast bread shaped to form a crown. The New Orleans version has its own touches. The official colors of Mardi Gras–created in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex–purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power are usually added onto the cake as decoration.
So now we know. You’re welcome.
Yes, King Cakes are typically considered a “Mardi Gras thing”, but in all actuality, they are just a delicious yeast dough pastry with a scrumptious filling, so feel free to make this anytime y’all feel like it. 🤪
Let’s Get Down to Business
The Yeast Dough
Begin by scalding the milk. You may be tempted to skip this step, but scalding milk when making a yeast dough will give you a better finished product. Scalding the milk denatures whey proteins. This makes the milk a better food for yeast, which means faster proofing, larger volume, and a fluffier product. It also makes for a smoother dough with better moisture retention.
Plus, it’s not hard. Heat your milk to just below the boiling point, add the butter and let it melt, then cool the milk/butter mixture to room temperature. See, no big deal.
Next, in a large bowl, dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1/2 tablespoon of the white sugar. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the egg. Stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. Beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time.
When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
Look at that beauty!
When it has risen to double size, punch it down and turn it out onto your floured surface again.
Roll the dough out into a large rectangle, about 10×16 inches or so. I use my Silpat baking mat for this. It’s about the same size that you need to roll out this dough, plus cinnamon rolls or similar type pastry you might be making. I just keep rolling until my dough is roughly the same size as the mat. It also prevents the dough from sticking, and makes for an easier clean up, so I don’t have all kinds of dough bits stuck to my counter top.
To make the filling, combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, and 1/2 cup flour in a medium-sized bowl. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until crumbly.
I store my pecans in the freezer (buy them in bulk from Costco!), and then chop them in my mini food processor. Because they are frozen, they chop up nicely, without turning into a paste.
You want a fine chop that looks like this.
Here’s what the finished filling looks like…
Okay guys, things are coming together now. Doesn’t this nutty-cinnamony-buttery mixture look delish?
Sprinkle the luscious filling evenly over the dough.
Roll It Up
And then roll it up tightly like a jelly roll, beginning at the wide side. Roll, roll, roll, trying to keep the roll even and as you go along. Take your time, just keep tucking back in any filling that may escape on the ends. Slow and steady wins the race. 🐢
Bring the ends of each roll together to form a round shaped ring. Remember from our history lesson, this is supposed to represent a “crown”. Place the ring on a cookie sheet, either sprayed with nonstick spray, or covered with a sheet of parchment paper.
With scissors, make cuts 1/3 of the way through the ring at 1 inch intervals. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake in your preheated oven for approximately 30 minutes. Watch it closely, though. Mine got a little darker than I prefer. I probably should have taken it out a little sooner.
Frost & Decorate
Mix 1 cup powdered confectioners’ sugar with 1 tablespoon water and 1/2 tablespoon of extract–either vanilla or almond. Mix until you get the consistency of a glaze, adding more water if needed. Pour this over the top of the warm cake, so it drips over the sides.
Green, purple, and gold are the colors of Mardi Gras (justice, faith, power, remember?) so traditional Mardi Gras King Cakes are decorated with these colors. I had yellow and green sprinkles on hand, but no purple, so I made my own.
I put about 1/8 cup sugar in a small glass bowl with a tight-fitting lid. The color chart on the back of the food coloring drops says 2 drops red + 1 drop blue = violet. Just drop your coloring on top of the sugar, close tightly, and shake, shake, shake. Check your color and add more drops if needed. I think I ended up adding a total of 6 red and 3 blue to mine.
Slice & Serve
You guys, this cake is so good!
It’s not hard to make, so don’t be intimidated. It is a bit time consuming when you factor in the wait times for the dough to rise, so definitely do this when you are going to be home for a few hours. The reward is well worth it, for sure!
Look at that to-die-for filling of pecans, cinnamon and butter all rolled up in a warm, yeasty, fresh-baked bread dough. Your house is going to smell DIVINE.
Add the sweetness of the slightest bit of creamy frosting on top, and this King Cake is a winner.
Store your cake in an airtight container to keep it from drying out. You’re going to need the luck of the Irish to keep your family away from it, though.
Mardi Gras King Cake
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/8 cup butter
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup warm water (110 degrees)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg ground/grated
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup brown sugar packed
- 1 tbsp cinnamon ground
- 2/3 cup pecans finely chopped
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup butter melted
- 1 cup confectioners' sugar
- 1 tbsp water
- 1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract (I used almond)
- Scald milk, remove from heat and stir in 1/8 cup of butter. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1/2 tablespoon of the white sugar. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
- When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the eggs. Stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. Beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. When risen, punch down and divide dough in half.
- To Make Filling: Combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup raisins. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until crumbly.
- Roll dough halves out into a large rectangle (approximately 10×16 inches or so). Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough and roll up tightly like a jelly roll, beginning at the wide side. Bring the ends of the roll together to form a circular shaped ring. Place ring on a prepared cookie sheet. With scissors make cuts 1/3 of the way through the ring at 1 inch intervals. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease a cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
- Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Push the doll into the bottom of the cake. Frost while warm with the confectioners' sugar blended with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water. You can also use a whole pecan hidden in the ring before baking. Plastic baby should only be inserted AFTER baking.
PS. A shout out to the sweetest triplets I’ve ever met, and their amazing mama, who were so welcoming to us when we visited New Orleans a couple of years ago. I’m going to let y’all be the judges and let me know how my King Cake stacks up . 😃
This post contains affiliate links.