Especially in New Orleans, the King Cake reigns over all the other pastries and desserts during the King Cake season, which begins on January 6th, or Twelfth Night.
The King Cake is a very special cake, made in honor of the Three Kings, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus, and are celebrated twelve days after Christmas. As part of the Christian faith, we refer to this as the Feast of the Epiphany, Kings Day, or Little Christmas on the Twelfth Night.
Carnival season also begins on January 6th, the Twelfth Night after Christmas, and always ends on Mardi Gras Day (aka, Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday (the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent), which is always 47 days before Easter Sunday. And, according to the Gregorian (church) calendar, Easter is the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21. Since Easter will always fall between March 22 and April 25, Carnival season can run as long as two months (or as short as about one month). With that, the date of Mardi Gras Day differs each year.
It is said that the tradition of Mardi Gras came to Louisiana along with the French explorers when they found the mouth of the Mississippi River near New Orleans on March 3, 1699. Knowing that day was being celebrated as a major holiday in Paris, their leader, Pierre Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, named the site Point du Mardi Gras. Supposedly, they fêted with impromptu revelry, and I imagine there must have been a simplistic pancake version of a King Cake. Seriously, every Carnival season party includes a King Cake and festive music, right?
The traditional King Cake is a simple braided ring of sweet bread dough, is round or oval-shaped, has a jeweled crown-like appearance, and is always decorated with the classic royal colors of Mardi Gras – purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power). These days, after the rich brioche dough is braided and baked, either a fève, a dried bean, pecan half, or plastic baby is inserted into the King Cake.
At a Carnival party, the King Cake is sliced and served. The lucky person who finds the fève, bean, pecan, or baby in their slice of cake is “king or queen for a day”. They’re also bound by custom to continue the festivities by hosting the next King Cake party (or at least provide the next King Cake to the office lunch room)!
During the Carnival season, it’s pretty easy to find a King Cake to buy in Louisiana, whether at a bakery, a grocery store, or even a convenience store at a gas station. Here’s a very short list of a few local bakeries in and around the Bayou Country, Acadiana, River Road, and the greater New Orleans region (many of these will ship a King Cake, too):
- Nonna Randazzo’s Italian Bakery
- Haydel’s Bakery
- Gambino’s Bakery
- Manny Randazzo King Cakes
- Keller’s Bakery
- Poupart’s Bakery
But, if you buy more than a couple of King Cakes during Carnival season, you might find it worth the effort (and price) to learn how to make one yourself. I’ll admit, my first attempt at making a King Cake didn’t turn out so well. The cake was sort of dense and, umm, not the best tasting (except for the icing). I’d used an old family recipe with very few written instructions, and was rather concise on what to do when with what. Do you know what I mean?
Before I tried making my first King Cake, I really couldn’t remember the last time I’d made anything using yeast in a recipe. I’m pretty sure that I messed up while preparing the initial yeast mixture because it never really began ‘bubbling’ or ‘foaming’. I knew something wasn’t done correctly, so, prior to making a second King Cake and creating my own version of a recipe, I did a little research about yeast breads. I found one of my Grandma’s old textbooks, School and Home Cooking, and also read the chapter on Breads and Coffee Cakes in The Joy of Cooking. Honestly, I didn’t know that yeast could be killed by a temperature above 130˚F! (I now have a candy thermometer!) Patience is definitely a virtue when it comes to making yeast breads. Apparently, kneading time and proofing time are very important. No wonder bakers’ hours start so early in the morning!
Do you want to know a little-known secret about how to make a King Cake? It’s confidence and courage, my friends. Believe that you’re fully capable of braiding bread dough. Be brave and dare to slay the yeast beast! Think of it this way… making a King Cake may seem scary at first, but once you know how to do it, it’s really a lot of fun. Plus, kneading dough can be a great workout for your arms! With a little patience and persistence, hand crafting a traditional King Cake yourself ends up being a worthwhile enjoyable experience.
What you need to make this King Cake recipe:
This traditional King Cake recipe is more like a classic Southern French cake. It consists of one 12-inch crown-shaped brioche dough split into three long ropes with finely chopped nuts braided in, without a filling, that’s decorated with icing and sugar, and yields between 10 to 12 servings. If you’re not sure how to ‘scald milk’, take a minute to learn the technique here. If you’re not sure how to braid bread, watch here, and especially here (this Louisiana bakery makes braided style King Cakes). And, this recipe includes how to make your own colored sparkling sugar crystals, but you can certainly use pre-made colored sugars instead.
You’ll also need time to make this King Cake recipe. Including about 20 to 30 minutes of prep time, I’d say you’ll need a total time of approximately 4 to 5 hours. I know, that seems like a long time, but about half of that duration is when the dough is proofing, or rising, for a couple of hours or so. I call that the ‘intermission sessions’, when you’ll have enough time to do other things. Such as sweeping up all of the flour that fell on the floor, taking a shower to wash dough out of your hair (if you didn’t wear a hat), and putting a load of clothes in the wash (if you didn’t wear an apron). Or, you could jam out to some Mardi Gras tunes while you hand-wash, or load up the dishwasher with, all of the bowls and kitchen gadgets after use. Making a homemade King Cake is a lot of fun, but things do get disheveled, so you do need time for cleaning up!
And, like any DIY project, you’ll need pieces of equipment, tools, and supplies on hand for making a King Cake. Presuming that you’ll be working in your kitchen at home, a minimum clear counter space of at least 42” wide by 24” deep is desirable. But, you can still craft a King Cake with less counter space (trust me, I know this from experience in making this particular recipe). It’s helpful if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, or a food safe wooden dough bowl, for making this homemade King Cake recipe. Otherwise, you’ll be using a large mixing bowl and kneading the dough by hand, like me. If you don’t mind using multiple kitchen utensils and gadgets, I think you’ll tackle making this recipe. Here’s a list of items, similar to those that I used, to make a homemade King Cake:
Equipment, Essentials, and Gadgets:
- Kitchen Apron, full length (and, maybe use a Chef’s Hat or Skull Cap, too)
- Oven Mitts / Pot Holders
- Kitchen Towel / Tea Towel
- Large Mixing Bowl
- Mixing Bowl Set
- Hand-crank Flour sifter
- Measuring Cups (metal for dry ingredients, and glass for liquid ingredients)
- Measuring Spoons
- Bread Dough Whisk
- Wooden Spoon(s)
- Egg Separator
- Large Spatula
- Pastry Brush
- Spouted Butter Warmer / Milk Sauce Pan
- Candy Thermometer
- Hand Zester / Grater
- Rolling Pin
- Nut Chopper
- Balloon Whisk(s)
- Large Baking Pan / Cookie Sheet
- Large Wire Cooling Rack
- Church Key can / bottle opener
- Hand Citrus Juicer
- Fine Mesh Food Strainer, small
- 12 oz. Coffee Can, empty, without lid
- Large Serving Plate / Platter
- Clear Plastic Wrap
- Parchment Paper
- Re-sealable Plastic Snack Bags
- CD of Mardi Gras Music
- Broom and Dustpan
Traditional King Cake Recipe:
For the Brioche Dough (Cake):
- ½ cup water (lukewarm, 105˚ to 110˚F)
- 2 packages (5/16 oz. each) active dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons light brown sugar
- ½ cup granulated white sugar
- 4 cups unbleached bread flour, divided (plus extra for kneading)
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest, finely grated
- ½ cup evaporated milk, scalded (cooled to lukewarm, 105˚F to 110˚F)
- 5 large egg yolks (at room temperature), beaten
- 1 cup butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon orange extract
- ½ cup walnuts, finely chopped
- 1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon evaporated milk (egg wash)
For the Colored Sparkling Sugar Crystals:
- 1-½ cups granulated white sugar, divided
- 3 heaping tablespoons sparkling white sugar, divided
- 16 drops red food coloring
- 8 drops blue food coloring
- 8 drops green food coloring
- 8 drops yellow food coloring
For the Glaze Icing:
- 2 cups powdered confectioners’ sugar
- ¼ cup condensed milk (at room temperature)
- 3-6 tablespoons strained fresh orange juice
For the Carnival Season Tradition:
- 1 French porcelain fève (or pink plastic baby), uncooked dried fava bean (or chocolate fève), or a shelled pecan half to hide in the cake after baking
- Purple, Green, and Yellow (gold) decorative colored sugar crystals
- Combine 3-3/4 cups of flour, the granulated white sugar, the nutmeg, the cinnamon, and the salt, and sift them into a large deep mixing bowl. Stir in the orange zest, then make a ‘well’ in the center of the dry ingredient mixture. Set aside.
- Heat the water in a saucepan until it reaches a lukewarm temperature. Pour the lukewarm water into a medium sized deep bowl and sprinkle the yeast and brown sugar over it. Let the yeast and sugar rest for 2-3 minutes, then stir to mix the ingredients together until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved. Place the bowl on a baking sheet and set in a warm draft-free place (such as an unlit oven) for about 10 minutes, or until the yeast bubbles up and the mixture almost doubles in volume.
- During the meantime, in a small spouted saucepan over low heat, scald the milk, then pour into a cup and allow to cool down to lukewarm temperature. In a small saucepan, over low heat, melt the butter, then remove from heat. Using a small bowl, egg separator, and a cup, separate the egg yolks from the egg whites. Lightly beat the egg yolks with a whisk, and set aside. Check on the yeast mixture.
- Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the yeast mixture and it begins to foam, remove the bowl from the baking sheet and whisk in the lukewarm milk, melted butter, beaten eggs, and the orange extract. Pour the liquid mixture into the ‘well’ of the dry ingredients. With a large spatula, gradually incorporate and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. When the mixture is smooth, continue to beat for about 2 minutes longer, or until the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, and can be gathered into a ball.
- Place the dough ball on a lightly floured surface and, with lightly floured hands, knead the dough, pushing the dough down with the heels of your hands, using a rolling motion, pressing it forward and folding it back on itself. Give dough a quarter of a turn. As you knead, incorporate up to 1 cup more flour, sprinkling it over the ball by the tablespoonful. When the dough is no longer sticky, knead it for about 10 minutes longer, or until it is smooth, shiny and elastic. It should have tiny air bubbles under the surface.
- Put the dough back into the bowl. Drape the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and put aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1-½ hours, or until the dough has nearly doubled in volume.
- With a sheet of parchment paper, line large baking pan. Wrap a second sheet of parchment paper around the outside of an empty coffee can. Set aside on countertop.
- Once the dough has risen, punch it down with a blow of your fist, then pushing edges into center, and place it on a lightly floured surface. Scatter the finely chopped walnuts over the top, knead the dough until the nuts are well distributed, then 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 ropes around one another, and gently lay the braided dough on the parchment lined baking pan. Then form the braided loaf into a circle, looping around the parchment wrapped empty coffee can, and pinching ends of dough together to seal.
- Drape the dough with a damp towel again and set it in a draft-free place to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes, or until the braided ring doubles in size.
- Preheat the oven to 375˚F. (If you have used the oven to let the dough rise, transfer the ring to another warm place to rest while the oven heats to preheat temperature.) In a small bowl, lightly beat egg with milk and set aside.
- Once it’s doubled in size, with a pastry brush, spread the ‘egg wash’ mixture on the top and sides of the braided ring, place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven, and bake the King Cake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it is golden brown. During the last couple minutes of baking, remove the empty coffee can so that the inside of the circle is able to become a little brown, too.
- Remove the King Cake from the oven. Slide the cake onto a wire rack to cool to room temperature, for at least 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the colored sugars. Place ½ cup granulated sugar along with 1 heaping tablespoon sparkling sugar in each of three small re-sealable plastic bags. In a small bowl, combine red and blue food coloring until it turns purple. Add purple food coloring to one bag, green coloring to another bag, and yellow coloring to third bag. Seal bags, and shake each until sugar is even in color. Set the purple, green, and yellow sugars aside.
- When the King Cake has cooled, prepare the icing. Combine the powdered confectioners’ sugar, condensed milk, and orange juice in a deep bowl, and whisk together until the icing mixture is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick to spread easily, add a little more condensed milk, 1 teaspoon at a time. With a small spatula, spread the icing over the top of the King Cake, allowing it to run irregularly down the sides.
- While the icing is still wet, sprinkle the colored sugars over the icing immediately, forming a row of purple, green, and yellow strips, each about 2 inches wide. Tuck the fève, pecan half, or plastic baby into the underside of the King Cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a serving plate. (If preparing in advance, allow the icing and colored sugars to set up a bit, then cover with plastic wrap.)
- Make sure to remind your family and party guests there’s a baby charm inside the King Cake!
- And, que the Mardi Gras music! Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Lagniappe (Lan-yap) ‘a little something extra’:
If you’re not in Louisiana and you don’t feel like mail-ordering a King Cake, try making one yourself. If my DIY homemade King Cake recipe above seems advanced for your culinary skills, this is a really easy-to-prepare Mardi Gras King Cake Mix, and only needs a little water, an egg, and a couple sticks of butter to make it.
There are quite a few King Cake recipes that I’ve found online, like this one from Southern Living. These are a few Louisiana cookbooks with King Cake recipes, too:
- American Cooking: Creole and Acadian
- The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book
- The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine
- My New Orleans: The Cookbook
- Cooking Up a Storm
Where do you buy your favorite King Cake? Or, do you have an old family recipe and make your own? Do tell!
Disclosure Note: This is not a sponsored post. The opinions are completely my own and based on my own experience. This post may contain affiliate links for your convenience and to assist with the maintenance of this site.