Mardi Gras King Cake

updated Feb 12, 2024
Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe

You'll be making this festive dessert every year from now on.

Serves15

Makes1 cake

Jump to Recipe
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Close up shot of a king cake with three slices cut, and facing the camera to show the swirl.
Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

King cakes are made around the world as part of the festival of the Epiphany, but in New Orleans, king cakes have truly taken on a life of their own. From the start of Carnival on January 6 through Mardi Gras at the beginning of February, you’ll find one of these sweet, color-splashed king cakes just about everywhere.

Did you get “the baby”? That means you bring the next cake — and we have just the cake you’ll want to bring.

The Tradition of the King Cake

King cakes are named for the Three Kings of the Bible and were part of the Epiphany celebration at the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. They’re variously called Galette des Rois in France, Rosca de Reyes in Spain, and vasilopita in Greece.

I spoke with Judy Walker, retired food editor for the New Orlean’s Times-Picayune and author of Cooking Up a Storm, about how the king cake tradition has taken shape in Louisiana. She told me that it was originally brought to the area by French settlers, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the cakes really took firm hold. Two local bakeries, McKenzie’s and Gambino’s, were key in establishing the cultural significance of the king cakes. They started selling their versions of king cake during Carnival season, and the popularity just skyrocketed. Walker told me that king cakes from New Orleans’ bakeries are now shipped all over the world, and it’s become a major industry in the area.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

What’s with the Baby in a King Cake?

Traditionally, the “baby” was actually a small dried bean or a pecan, which would get baked right into the cake. Finding the bean in your slice of cake means that you got to be king or queen for the day and are also responsible for bringing the next cake to keep the party going. (If you’re in New Orleans, don’t overlook this etiquette of bringing the next cake or you may find yourself with grumpy co-workers!)

Since then, the bean has morphed into an actual toy baby figurine — although Walker was quick to stop me when I mused that this must represent the baby Jesus. She said that all sorts of trinkets have been used in king cakes, and the baby figurine is just one that caught on particularly well.

King Cake Varieties

New Orleans king cakes take after the Southern French tradition of a ring-shaped cake made with a rich yeasted bread similar to brioche bread, but as Walker explained to me, there is a lot of room for the individual baker’s tastes and interpretation. Yes, the very original king cakes were fairly plain yeasted loaves, included no filling, and were barely sweet, but they have evolved with the times and with people’s tastes.

These days, you can find — or make! — king cakes that are filled or unfilled, shaped in a plain circle or twisted into a braid, and topped with plain icing or covered with glittering sprinkles on every surface. The most popular versions are stuffed with a cream cheese filling or with a cinnamon filling, but Walker also talked about seeing king cakes filled with everything from pecan praline to goat cheese and apples. Walker says, “People like their own styles and often have loyalties to a particular bakery.”

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Ben Weiner

Our Recipe for King Cake

The particular king cake that I made for this recipe is adapted from Walker’s own recipe in Cooking Up a Storm. I took her advice on the filling and stuck with cinnamon and sugar — my favorite — and rolled it up like one giant cinnamon roll. I love the pretty spiraled layers this makes. If you’d like a more sweet and doughy bread with less filling than we’ve made here, just roll your dough more thinly and make fewer rolls.

Make-Ahead and Storage Tips

  • Make ahead and freeze your cake: Let the unfrosted cake cool completely, then wrap in a double layer of plastic wrap and foil. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight at room temperature, then frost before serving.
  • Storage: The sliced cake or leftovers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe

You'll be making this festive dessert every year from now on.

Makes 1 cake

Serves 15

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 1/4 cup

    water

  • 2 teaspoons

    active-dry yeast

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature and very soft

  • 1/4 cup

    whole or 2% milk

  • 2

    large eggs, lightly beaten

  • 2 tablespoons

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground nutmeg

  • 3 to 3 1/2 cups

    all-purpose flour

  • Cooking spray or vegetable oil

For the cinnamon filling:

  • 4 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 2/3 cup

    packed light brown sugar

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    ground cinnamon

  • 1

    dried red bean, half a pecan, or plastic figurine of choice

To decorate the cake:

  • 1 cup

    powdered sugar, sifted

  • 2 tablespoons

    whole or 2% milk, plus more as needed

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    almond extract

  • Purple, green, and yellow paste food coloring or sprinkles (or other colors depending upon the occasion)

Instructions

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  1. Combine 1/4 cup water and 2 teaspoons active-dry yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let it dissolve. Stir in 8 tablespoons (1 stick) softened unsalted butter, 1/4 cup whole or 2% milk, 2 lightly beaten eggs, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Add 3 cups of the flour and stir to form a shaggy dough. Reserve the remaining 1/2 cup of flour.

  2. Using the dough hook attachment, begin kneading the dough on low speed. Continue kneading the dough until all the loose flour has been worked in, the dough comes together in a ball, and it feels smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. It will feel a bit more dense and malleable than regular bread dough — more like play dough. (Alternatively, turn the dough out on a lightly floured counter and knead by hand for about 10 minutes.) If the dough sticks to the bowl, the hook, or your hands, add a little of the reserved flour.

  3. Clean the bowl used to mix the dough and coat it lightly with cooking spray or vegetable oil. Shape the dough into a ball with your hands, set it in the bowl, and cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

  4. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using floured hands, pat it into a rough rectangular shape, then use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a fairly thin rectangle roughly 24 inches wide by 10 inches tall.

  5. Use a spatula to spread 4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter in a thin layer all over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border at the top of the rectangle. Whisk together 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, then sprinkle it evenly over the butter. Press the cinnamon sugar lightly with the palms of your hands or the rolling pin to help it stick to the butter.

  6. Place 1 dried red bean, half a pecan, or plastic figurine of choice somewhere on the surface of the dough; it will be hidden once you roll up the dough. If you're using a plastic figurine in your cake, wait until after the cake is baked to add it.

  7. Starting at the long end closest to you, roll the dough up toward the top. A pastry scraper can help with this step if your dough sticks to the counter. Pinch the log of dough closed and roll it over onto the seam.

  8. Curl the log of dough into a spiral and overlap the ends slightly so that the spiral is the same height all around. Pinch the dough lightly where the ends overlap so they form a seal. Transfer the spiral to a baking sheet lined with parchment.

  9. Drape the dough loosely with plastic wrap. Let it rise at room temperature until it looks puffed and slightly larger, 45 to 60 minutes. Halfway through the rising, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F.

  10. Bake until lightly browned and golden-brown on top, 30 to 40 minutes. A little syrupy filling might ooze onto the baking sheet; this is normal.

  11. Let the cake cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer the cake onto a wire cooling rack. Let it cool completely to room temperature. If using a plastic figurine, gently push it into the underside of the cake so that it's hidden.

  12. Place the 1 cup sifted powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons whole or 2% milk, and 1/4 teaspoon almond extract in a small bowl and whisk together to create a thick, but pourable, icing. Add more milk 1/2 tablespoon at a time as needed to adjust the consistency. Leave the icing white if you're decorating the cake with colored sprinkles, or divide the icing into 3 bowls and tint each one a different color with food dyes.

  13. Drizzle the frosting over the cake in patches of different color, letting some icing drizzle down the sides. "Paint" the cake with as many different patches or strips as you like. Cover with colored sprinkles if desired.

  14. Let the icing dry completely before serving. If not serving immediately, loosely cover with plastic and store at room temperature — avoid the plastic touching the icing as much as possible, or wait to frost until just before serving.

Recipe Notes

Storage: The sliced cake or leftovers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Adapted from Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.