King Cake is a decadent, buttery confection prepared to mark Epiphany, or Twelfth Night – the day when the wise men returned from Bethlehem with the news that Christ had been born. Whether as a galette des rois in France or a dreikönigskuchen in Germany, these celebratory cakes all consist of a rich, yeasted dough, often cream-filled or studded with dried fruit, baked in a crown shape and richly decorated to resemble the crown of the Magi. Baked inside is a single dried bean or nut, known as the "fève" to the French, and the person who found it in their cake would then be crowned king or queen of the celebration.
In New Orleans, King Cakes are traditionally served throughout Carnival until Fat Tuesday, though they have become such an iconic part of the culture that they can now be found year round. The lucky bean eventually morphed into a tiny plastic baby, which some say represents the baby Jesus, and, in addition to being crowned king of the festivities, the finder is responsible for bringing a cake to the next party.
Bedazzled with sparkling sugar in the signature Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold (symbolizing justice, faith and power), King Cakes are as good to look at as they are to eat. While not a difficult recipe to prepare, it is a process and will make a mess in your kitchen. But hey, it's Mardi Gras! Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll, and maybe pour yourself a Hurricane cocktail while you do the dishes.
Feel free to swap out the fillings as you choose. Nutella or chocolate chips, cinnamon sugar, chopped praline or strawberry jam are all delicious choices.
For the dough:
2 egg yolks, room temperature
2 whole eggs, room temperature
¼ cup sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
¾ cup whole milk, room temperature
Zest of half a lemon (use the other half for the filling)
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) instant dry yeast
A large dried bean or plastic baby
For the filling:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
½ cup sugar
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla or Grand Marnier
Zest of half a lemon (leftover from the dough)
For the icing:
3 tablespoons room temperature butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or Grand Marnier
Juice of one lemon
Tiny pinch of salt
Combine the egg yolks and eggs, melted butter, sugar, milk, lemon zest and nutmeg in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add three and a half cups of the flour, the yeast and salt and mix well to form a sticky dough. Knead for four to five minutes. Add more flour as needed to achieve the desired consistency. The dough should be very soft and a little sticky but still workable.
Transfer the dough to a well-oiled bowl and cover. Place in a warm, draft-free location until doubled in volume, about two hours depending on the temperature of the room. (You can also let it rise in the fridge overnight.)
When the dough is rising, prepare the filling. Combine the cream cheese, egg, sugar, flour, lemon zest and vanilla and beat until smooth. Set aside.
Dust a clean, dry work surface with flour. Line a baking sheet with parchment or you can choose to bake this cake in a 12-cup Bundt pan – be sure to butter and flour it well.
Turn the dough out onto the floured work surface. Dust your hands with flour and gently stretch the dough into a roughly 14-inch by 18-inch rectangle. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the dough, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border over the long top side. This is the time to add a bean, if using. (If I'm using a plastic baby I stick it in the bottom of the baked cake before I decorate it.) Roll the dough up away from you into a long log and pinch along the seam to seal it up. Form it into a ring and seal the ends together, then transfer it to a prepared Bundt pan, seam side up, or roll it into a snail shape (seam side down) on a prepared baking sheet. Cover with a large inverted bowl or greased plastic wrap and place in a warm place for about an hour, or until it gets lightly puffy and swelled. (Avoid letting it over-rise and get too puffy. This will result in a dense cake.)
Forty-five minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the cake has completed its second rise, transfer it to the oven and bake for about 35-40 minutes for a Bundt, 30-35 minutes if baked on a baking sheet. A thermometer inserted into the center of the cake should read 190 degrees. Let cool for 10 minutes in the Bundt pan before turning out onto a rack to cool completely. Cakes on a baking sheet can be left there to cool completely.
While the cake cools, make the icing. Beat together the powdered sugar, butter, vanilla and a tiny pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter) until combined. Add lemon juice one tablespoon at a time until you have the consistency of a thick glaze.
Drizzle the glaze over the top of the cooled cake, then decorate with bands of purple, green and gold sprinkles. Allow three to four hours for the icing to set completely (if planning to transport the cake).