King Cake! A New Orleans-Style Recipe for Mardi Gras

Cookbook Recipes

King cakes have always bemused me. They must be the most garish, hideously-colored thing in the baker's repertoire. Green, purple, and yellow? Really? And yet king cakes are a cherished Mardi Gras tradition — in fact, several of you wrote requesting a recipe. So I took a deep breath and confronted this paint-splattered cake for the first time, with a little help from a new cookbook from The Times Picayune of New Orleans. And you know what? I think that this might have to become a tradition in my household too! Why? Well...

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Hello!!! This thing is absolutely delicious. It might look like a giant cartoon of a Homer Simpson-style donut, but underneath it's an oversized cinnamon roll spackled with creamy, almond flavored icing and sprinkles. There are flaky layers of rich yeast dough, with a crust of cinnamon sugar on the bottom and gooey filling in between. It's a sugar bomb, and it's ridiculously good.
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This recipe for king cake comes from Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times Picayune of New Orleans. It was curated and written by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, who both work on the food section at The Times Picayune. The recipe was published in the paper back in 2003, and it has been a popular version.

With one significant exception, this is a great recipe. In fact, I may switch to this dough when making cinnamon rolls. It's easy to work with, and really delicious. Tender, a little flaky, and fragrant.

It's also pretty simple to put the cake together — again, with one exception, which I have noted below. Regardless, though, this is a great recipe for Mardi Gras next Tuesday!

What are you doing for Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras? Are you making a king cake, or perhaps some pancakes or doughnuts?

• Get the book: Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, $15.46 at Amazon

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King Cake
makes 1 large coffeecake-sized ring

1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F)
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees F)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs

Cinnamon Filling
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 red bean, pecan half, or small plastic baby figurine

Frosting
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
Purple, green, and yellow paste food coloring (or other colors depending upon the occasion)

For the dough: Pour the warm water into a large warmed bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the warm milk, butter, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Add 1 cup of the flour and blend well. Stir in the eggs and enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Lightly flour a flat work surface, and turn out the dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, adding more flour if the dough sticks. (Ed. Note: You can also do this in a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook, which is what I did. I still kneaded it for about 5 minutes, though. If doing it by hand I would recommend going for at least 10 minutes.)

Put in a large greased bowl, and turn to grease the top of the dough. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

For the filling: Punch the dough down. Transfer to the lightly floured work surface and use a rolling pin to roll into a 30-by-9-inch rectangle. Brush with the melted butter. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle the brown sugar mixture over the dough to within 1/2 inch of the edges. Beginning at the long end, roll up tightly, as for a jelly roll. Pinch the seam to seal.

(Ed. Note: OK, here is the one place this recipe made zero sense to me. It seems like they want you to create a 30-inch roll, then cut it in half lengthwise, giving you two 30-inch pieces. Then they want you to join those pieces, creating a 60-inch piece! That is huge, and bigger than any of my pans.) With a sharp knife, cut the roll in half lengthwise, and carefully turn the halves so that cut sides face up. Join the ends, pinching them to form one ring, keeping the cut sides up so the filling is visible. Transfer the ring to a large greased baking sheet. (Ed. Note: See? One huge roll, right? Regardless, what I did was FIRST cut the roll in half CROSSWISE. Then I split each of those halves lengthwise and turned the cut sides face up. These two wide semi-circles got joined in the middle to make the ring. Maybe it is supposed to be that big, but overall, the instructions here on shaping the cake were very confusing to me.)

If using a red bean or pecan half, push it into the underside of the dough to hide it. (A baby charm will go in after baking.) Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 20 to 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove the cake from the baking sheet and let cool on a wire rack. If using a plastic baby figurine, push it into the underside of the cake.

For the frosting: In a small bowl mix together the sugar, almond extract, and milk until smooth. Divide among three smaller bowls. Tint one mixture purple, the second one green, and the third one gold, mixing each one well. Drizzle each color over the top of the cake.

Related: Good Question: Recipes for Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras?

(Recipe courtesy of Chronicle Books. Images: Faith Durand)

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