Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mardi Gras King Cake

With a rich food culture immersed in pride and tradition, New Orleans is one of my top-desired culinary destinations.

From bananas foster to the Bloody Mary, it is the birthplace of many favorites that I would love to experience straight from the source. I can just see myself taking large gaping bites of po’ boy and mufaletta sandwiches, devouring Cajun and Creole classics like crawfish étouffée and jambalaya, and having deep-fried love affairs with hush puppies and biegnets.

Mardi Gras is coming up this Tuesday and to celebrate I made another New Orleans food that I’ve always wanted to try: King Cake. The customary Mardi Gras King Cake is a round, braided cinnamon brioche bread that is covered in glaze and drenched in decorative green, purple and gold sugar sprinkles. The colors are said to represent faith (green), justice (purple), and power (gold).

I am so proud of how this cake came out. It looks so authentic and festive; I could harldy take my eyes off of it! P.S. Those alligator beads are really from New Orleans. My cousin Eloise brought them back from when she visited.
I found John Besh’s recipe for King Cake on Besh is the acclaimed chef of six New Orleans’s restaurants, most notably, August, so I trusted him for a great recipe and definitely got one. For the icing, I just have to note that I ended up using a lot more lemon juice than the recipe called for to make it pourable (about 3 lemons).

King Cakes were originally made to celebrate the coming of the Epiphany. In Louisiana, they are usually only baked and eaten during the Mardi Gras/Carnivale season, which stretches from Twelfth Night (January 6) to the day before Ash Wednesday, aka Fat Tuesday.

It is tradition to insert a small plastic baby into the large coffee cake-type loaf to represent the baby Jesus. Pecan halves, fava beans, peas, coins, and other trinkets are also used as substitutions. I didn’t have a plastic baby, so I made one out of Sculpey clay. Isn’t he the cutest?

Looking for the baby is all part of the fun; among the many different explanations, whoever gets the piece with the baby is said to be king/queen for a day, have good luck in the coming year, and is appointed to host the King Cake celebration next year.

We cut into the King Cake tonight, and so far no one has found the baby. I wonder who it will be…

King Cake:
Recipe from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh, found at
For the cake:
- 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup melted butter
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
For the icing:
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (plus more as needed)
- Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
- 1 fève (fava bean) or plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking
• For the cake, pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
• Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
• After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
• Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
• Preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
• Once it's doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
• For the icing, while the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it’s a touch too loose, add a little more powdered sugar.
• Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.


The Duo Dishes said...

A slice of this would be so nice right now. Hope you found the baby!

Adriana said...

I made this recipe last year and loved the citrusy notes in the cake and icing. Happy Mardi Gras!


Love the king cake and your little baby is WAY cute!

Claudia said...

Who got the darling baby and reigned as king? What a joyous cake - it is picture perfect and so festive.

ravienomnoms said...

So awesome!

sandy axelrod said...

New Orleans is my favorite food destination. My husband and I go there often but it is not just the food that draws us but the way New Orleaneans celebrate life every day! I am sure that King Cake will be great, John is a fabulour chef (and a real nice guy!)

Shirley said...

Cute baby!! I first read about king cake last week in some magazine, had never heard of it before. Yours is beautiful! Love all the colors.

Karen said...

That baby is the cutest thing ever! Your cake came out beautifully...I would be proud too.

Adelina said...

Wow! I love this festive cake! It's perfect in every way. Love the colors too.