This year, Mardi Gras will look very different.
In lieu of the canceled Carnival parades, residents in New Orleans have started decorating their homes like the giant, colorful parade floats that have become synonymous with the South Louisiana celebration. Instead of large balls and street parties that take place in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, revelers are planning distanced gatherings and Zoom parties. And office spaces, empty of employees, are no longer the sites of communal king cake.
But, there is still plenty of king cake — Mardi Gras wouldn’t be the same without it.
It all started on Jan. 6, known as Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which in the Christian tradition observes the day when the three wise men (or three kings) visited the baby Jesus. The day is commemorated with myriad celebrations all over the world, many of which include their own version of king cake, from the Rosca de Reyes loaves topped with candied fruit found in Mexico to the buttery puff pastry cakes filled with frangipane in France.
There are countless versions of king cake in New Orleans, too. From pecan and praline-topped to cream cheese and raspberry-filled to savory spins stuffed with spicy boudin or crawfish — when it comes to king cake creations, the sky’s really the limit. And until the Carnival season culminates on Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on Feb. 16, king cake production for most bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants is a nonstop, 24/7 affair.
“Every year in New Orleans, the game of king caking starts to feel more and more like a full-contact sport,” chef Kelly Fields writes in her recently released cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking.
Fields is the chef and owner of Willa Jean, a restaurant and bakery in New Orleans, and the recipient of the 2019 James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Her new book features a collection of the Southern-inspired pies, biscuits, corn bread, cakes and cookies her restaurant has become known for, and her king cake recipe is a must-make for anyone looking to celebrate Mardi Gras from the comfort of their home this season.
Fields’ recipe features a fairly traditional yeast-raised brioche dough with a cinnamon twist inside. Smothered in vanilla-scented cream cheese frosting and dusted with colored sanding sugars, it’s not unlike a doughy, gooey cinnamon roll when it’s done.
As it turns out, king cake is not that difficult to make at home. I found this recipe easy to follow and execute, but feel free to play around with some of the elements (though not with the dough, which needs precision and time to rise properly).
For a little extra cinnamon and sugar gooeyness, you could try doubling the cinnamon filling. And while the addition of a caramel crunch topping isn’t traditional for most king cakes, I found it was a nice touch, adding a layer of sweet, sugary crackle right as you bite into the cake. But if hot sugar work isn’t your thing (it requires a watchful eye and can deliver searing burns if spilled), feel free to omit this step.
Plastic babies and sanding sugars are available for purchase on Amazon, but you could just as well skip those, though the added surprise of who gets the slice of cake with the baby inside can be fun. (As for getting the baby into the cake, I squeezed mine in on one of the sides and then just made sure to cover the hole with plenty of icing, which worked.)
Most importantly, once the cake is ready, figure out a way to safely share it with others. That’s the true Mardi Gras spirit, after all.
Makes one 10-inch cake
2 1/2 cups bread flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into pieces and slightly softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
Cream cheese icing
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
Sanding sugar in green, purple, and gold (optional)
Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk together the bread flour and all-purpose flour with the yeast. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, whisk the eggs until smooth. Switch to the dough hook or a large wooden spoon and add the milk, lard and flour mixture. Mix on low speed for 4 minutes, until a dough starts to form. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on low speed, add the sugar and salt, then increase the speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes. Decrease the speed to low and add the butter, a little at a time, until fully incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat the dough for 5 to 7 minutes, until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough becomes silky and shiny.
Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and press it with the heel of your hand to about 3⁄4 inch thick and as close to a 6- by 10-inch rectangle as possible. (It’s fine if it’s a little wider or longer. You will trim it later.) Cover the baking sheet in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. (The dough can also be frozen if you don’t plan to use it the next day, but it will need to thaw overnight in the refrigerator when you’re ready for it.)
Make the cinnamon filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix the granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, salt and vanilla until a uniform paste forms. The filling can be used right away or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and brought to room temperature before using.
Lightly coat a 10-inch round cake pan with 2-inch-high sides with cooking spray. Cut the dough into two 3- by 5-inch strips. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll each piece evenly, maintaining a rectangular shape, until each piece is approximately 6 by 12 inches. Using an offset spatula, spread half of the cinnamon filling on one of the strips of dough, making sure to leave a 1-inch border on all but the long bottom edge.
Using a pastry brush, brush the border with water along the upper lip of the dough until slightly wet; this will act as a sealant later. Starting at the bottom edge, roll up the dough like a cinnamon roll. Once rolled, lightly press down to evenly seal the dough; the water will help to fully seal.
Using your hands, continue to roll the log to double the length, about 22 inches. Make sure to keep the width of the log consistent. Follow the same process for the second strip of dough.
Twist together the two dough logs, one over the other, in a spiral. Once fully twisted, connect the ends together to form a ring shape, pinching to seal if needed. Place the dough in the prepared pan and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough proof at room temperature (ideally about 75 degrees) for about 2 hours, until it has risen to about 1 1/2 times its original size and springs back slightly after you press it.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set a wire rack on the pan. Before baking, spritz the dough with water (or lightly sprinkle water over the dough with your hands) to help keep the crust from hardening. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the pan after 15 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then carefully remove the king cake from the pan and transfer it to the wire rack on the baking sheet. Let cool completely, about 1 hour.
Make the caramel crunch: In a small nonreactive saucepot, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water and bring to a boil over high heat, making sure the sugar fully dissolves. Continue cooking just until the mixture becomes a medium amber color, 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and ladle the caramel over the cake, creating a thin, even coating over the entire cake. Allow the crunch to set for 15 to 20 minutes.
While the cake is setting, make the icing: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix the cream cheese on medium speed until very smooth. Decrease the speed to low and add the powdered sugar in three portions, mixing well after each addition, until a smooth paste forms. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low speed, slowly stream in the milk and mix until the icing is well combined and smooth. Mix in the vanilla paste. This icing can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Bring to room temperature before using.
While the cake is still on the wire rack, drizzle the icing over the cake, using a 1-ounce ice cream scoop or large spoon. Drop a bit of icing over the higher ridges on the top of the cake and then pour the icing as you move away from the cake, so it waterfalls down the sides. If you’re sticking true to Mardi Gras tradition, sprinkle the sanding sugar over the top and allow the cake to sit for at least 30 minutes before transferring it to a serving plate. You can keep the king cake in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, but it truly is best on the day it is made.
Source: Adapted from The Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields