A year ago this week I was cutting a King Cake into slices, trying not to remember which one had the “baby” as I packaged them up for my neighbors in Portal, Arizona.
Our King Cake was the dessert of a “Fat Tuesday” meal, one of 10 three-course meals I catered with my 89-year-old cooking partner, Zola, during the COVID lockdown winter in a very small town in the Chiricahua Mountains. Since nobody could travel or go to restaurants, for 10 weeks our “Social Distance Cafe” roamed all over the world offering a 3-course culinary journey of a starter, a main and a dessert.
Fifteen or so people and couples took us up on it, and in addition to New Orleans, we also taste-traveled to both Sonoran and Oaxacan Mexico, India, Morocco, Italy, France, the Caribbean and beyond.
Most of the dishes served by the Social Distance Cafe I had eaten before. During my Southern Food Road Tour I ate a slice of the King Cake Susan Spicer gifted her staff at Bayona the Saturday morning I got a biscuit-making lesson from the New Orleans restaurateur. I also saw gorgeous finished King Cakes at Lea’s of LeCompte in Monroe, LA made by Toby Traylor.
Classic King Cake is basically a big braided cinnamon roll topped with colorful icing that’s eaten between the Epiphany and the start of Lent. The kings refer to the “Three Kings,” who legend has it traveled to see the Christ child, though they are also referred to as “Wise Men”, despite an evident lack of overlap between these two categories. Three Kings Day, aka the 12th Day of Christmas, is always on January 6, though some New Orleans bakeries jump the gun and make Christmas King Cakes frosted red and green. The season officially ends today, and I bet there are some bakers in Louisiana who are SO happy about that.
Assorted Three Wisemen/Kings (Baby Def Easier to Hide)
King Cake Recipe For Office Drama?
Tradition says if you find the hidden “baby” you win the honor of buying the next King Cake, which is more like playing Russian roulette than it is winning the lottery, since $20 is really the least you can spend for a decent bakery-made King Cake (and bringing a grocery store King Cake will get you a frosty reception in the break room). King Cake obligations and expectations have been known to create strife among co-workers when CERTAIN PEOPLE never seem to end up with the honors. Some offices even post explicit rules parsing what it means to “get the baby”:
Our King Cake recipe produced none of this drama, because the person who “got” the baby didn’t actually get it. One of our subscribers sent an email asking to skip dessert for this week. We had offered a free-meal prize for whoever found it, which ended up being me when I ate her dessert for breakfast and found the small ceramic bird hidden inside. (It just seemed more fitting for a birding mecca full of retired scientists than a plastic baby Jesus.) The original term ‘féve’ means fava, the dried bean used as “the baby” in olden-times, before party stores and hard plastics came into their own.
So what ELSE is inside the King Cake?
King Cake is a filled, enriched dough, similar to brioche, so sugar, milk, salt, butter, eggs, and yeast added to all-purpose (not cake) flour. It is instead made by some with puff pastry. Traditional King Cake Recipes have a filling of butter, sugar and cinnamon, though there is really no end to what can be stuffed in them. Dessert fillings like pralines, cream cheese, caramel apples and boozy Bananas Foster are just the start. There are even savory King Cake recipes, with less-sweet brioche stuffed with all manner of meats and cheeses; even crawfish!
Ringed to mimic a crown (and facilitate even baking) it is powdered-sugar-iced and blinged out in green, gold and purple. Those have been Mardi Gras’ traditional colors since 1892, when Mardi Gras King Rex decreed it so. King Cake’s debut in New Orleans and surrounds may have been as early as 1718 and is credited to Basque immigrants by American Cake author Ann Byrn.
My recipe is based on Barbara Bakes‘ recipe, though I doubled the filling, just as I do when I make less monstrously sized cinnamon rolls. Mine also includes a couple of additional ingredients, including anise, a popular flavor in Sonoran Mexican baking, a major regional influence during my time living in Southeast Arizona. Next time I make it, I plan to add in my prickly-pear and chiltepin spiced pecans, a Wild West praline with a kick.
Traditional King Cake Ingredients
- Begin warming milk, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and milk is between 120º to 130º. Do not boil!
- Mix 2 1/2 cups flour and yeast in mixing bowl, using the paddle attachment, on low for about 30 seconds.
- With mixer on low, pour in liquids and mix until incorporated. Add eggs one at a time. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms.
- Clean off paddle and switch to dough hook. Mix in the remaining 1 cup flour, a little at a time, until a soft dough forms. Stop adding flour.
- Continuing with the dough hook on medium speed, add the softened butter pieces one at a time until all are absorbed.
- Leaving the dough hook at a medium speed, knead until a smooth and elastic dough is produced – maybe 6-8 minutes. If it seems too sticky, you may add a sparing amount of flour, a spoonful at a time, to correct.
- Form dough into a ball and place in a buttered bowl twice its size. Flip the dough over, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate an hour.
- With paddle attachment in mixer or stirring together by hand, thoroughly combine cinnamon, anise OR cardamom, brown sugar, and softened butter.
- Roll dough out into a 10 x 20 inch rectangle, and spread filling along one side lengthwise, leaving a border, and then fold the not-covered side of the dough over the filling. Press the two sides of the dough together firmly to seal.
- Leaving an inch or two uncut at one end, make two even cuts lengthwise through the dough, forming three strands connected at the top. This is what we braid.
- We’re looking for a longer braid to shape into a ring, so don’t braid the strands too tightly. Depending on your skill/ambition, you may want to try turning the strands as you braid them, so some of the filling is more exposed.
- Seal the ends of the braid together with firm pressure. (Those who hide the féve in the cake before baking sometimes do so here.)
- Prepare your pan, covering with parchment or giving it a healthy greasing. Think about gooey burnt sugar and cinnamon on your pan and decide to go with parchment paper or a Silpat liner after all.
- In preparation to form the ring, gently stretch your braid, being careful of exposed filling on edges. Form a circle with the braid, tuck the tail of the braid under and press into the top of the braid to join. The shape of your rectangle influences the finished crown. A more elongated rectangle makes longer thinner strips, a longer braid and a crown that has a larger diameter. Mine is the converse, producing a fat crown with a smaller interior space. I choose this end of the shaping spectrum to err on the side of moisture, because nobody wants to eat a dry cinnamon roll.
- Preheat oven to 350 F/ 177 C
- Cover with plastic wrap and let rise an hour in a warm place. If it rises in a cool spot, it will take longer to proof. To test, press with a finger. If there is no indentation it’s not proofed enough. If it springs back, but slowly, you’re in the sweet spot: bake it! If your indentation does not spring back, well, you’ve over-proofed it. Better get it in the oven and better luck next time for a perfect proof!
- Bake until golden brown, 20–35 minutes. This is a WIDE time variation, and that’s because the correct time depends on what you did with the braiding and shaping. A wider, thinner circle will cook faster, and a fat, more-closed circle will take longer. It should be firm to the touch and an internal temperature of 190 F indicates the dough has become cake.
- If you’re on parchment, it will be easy to move to a cooling rack immediately. If you didn’t use parchment or silpat, wait a few minutes for the molten sugar to set up and then move to the rack to cool completely.
- Make the icing: Add all four ingredients in a mixing bowl with a pouring lip. Alternately, you may want to use a piping bag if you want to get fussy/fancy.
- If you didn’t bake your doll/féve into the King Cake, this is an optimum time to hide it; before the icing goes on. Some people cut a slit on the underside of the cake and shove it in, or wedge it into one of the slashes.
- When cake is fully cool, drizzle with the icing and then have some fun with the sparkly sugar. Some cakes are kind of striped with the three colors in their own lane. Others are a bit more mosaic, like mine.
Fill and Shape Dough
* While it’s always on a Tuesday, the date of Mardi Gras swings wildly, whiptailing behind Easter, which itself is squirrely because Christianity wanted to have its story straight with Judaism, so that Easter neatly follows Passover, aka the Last Supper. Since the Hebrew calendar is tied on the moon, Easter roams the calendar between March 22 to April 25, landing this year on April 17.