Mardi Gras King Cake
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One of the most well-known parts of Mardi Gras is the eye-catching king cake. Try this delicious recipe from your own kitchen this year!
By Hannah McClure As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Mardi Gras is a celebration held in New Orleans which begins on the Twelfth night and through Fat Tuesday. It is a pre-Lenten celebration known for its rich and fatty foods that are given up during Lent. The term Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French.
Now, as I got older, I quickly realized there are parts of Mardi Gras that I would be content not experiencing, but it still catches my eye and makes me smile to watch the celebration and even raises my curiosity about the stories behind some of the traditions. I enjoy the bright colors and fun costumes that come with the celebration.
Foods like the famous king cake pull me in. King cake is a traditional bread, or pastry-like dessert that is enjoyed from early January through Fat Tuesday, often recognized as a must-have during Mardi Gras. To some, it is also recognized as a part of Epiphany, a Catholic celebration held on January 6th. The celebration marks the arrival of the three kings who took gifts to Jesus.
It is said that king cake originated in old-world France and Spain. Thought to be brought to New Orleans in 1870 by France, where the traditions of this cake evolved. Its appearance in New Orleans is a circle or ring and decorated with icing and green, purple, and yellow/gold sprinkles or decorative sugars to resemble a king’s crown. This version of king cake is a lot like sweet bread and resembles that of the Spanish-speaking countries’ version more than it does the French version. The French version is a round cake made of puff pastry with the top scored in a decorative pattern before baking.
In the French version of king cake, a small bean is hidden. However, the king cake of America has a small baby figurine tucked into the cake; a tradition started in New Orleans. In the 1950s, that baby was made of porcelain and baked directly into each king cake until years later when the baby was swapped out for a plastic baby that is now hidden in the cake after it is baked.
The baby symbolizes Jesus for those of Catholic and Christian faith, and to others, it symbolizes luck and prosperity. It is said that the person who gets the baby is king for a day and will have luck and prosperity in the year to come. That person is also responsible for hosting the celebration and bringing the king cake next year. There are many different traditions surrounding the “trinket” hidden in king cake, but I must admit that my favorite is the baby. Some other trinkets that are used across the world are a bean, a coin, or a nut, to name a few.
My version of king cake is filled with a cream cheese praline. Some other fillings commonly seen in this cake are cinnamon sugar, pecan praline, or even fruit jams. This cake also requires some planning as the dough is refrigerated overnight and for a short period before baking.
It is important to remember that when making your own king cake, wait until baking is complete and your cake has cooled before hiding your baby. Also, make sure your guest or family knows that there is a small prize hidden.
- 6 tablespoons shortening
- ½ cup boiling scalded whole milk
- 1 egg beaten
- 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ½ cup cold movie
- 2 ¼ teaspoon yeast
- ¼ cup lukewarm water
- 3 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 egg whites, beaten for egg wash (hold the yolks for praline)
Cream Cheese Praline Filling
- 1 block cream cheese (8 ounces), softened
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
Pecan Praline filling
- 5 Tablespoons butter, softened
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 cup chopped pecans
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup vanilla-flavored half-and-half cream
Making the Dough: The night before
- In a large mixing bowl, combine boiling milk and shortening. Stir until shortening is melted.
- In a small bowl, mix together eggs, sugar, and salt and beat in cold water.
- In a measuring cup, soften yeast with lukewarm water (measure water out before adding yeast).
- Combine the three mixtures together in the large mixing bowl.
- Stir in half the flour. Adding in the last half, about half a cup at a time, until soft dough forms.
- Cover dough with plastic and refrigerate overnight.
- In a medium-small mixing bowl, beat together softened cream cheese, sugar, and extracts until smooth. Place in refrigerator until morning.
- In another medium-small bowl, mix together softened butter, egg yolks, sugar, extract, cinnamon, and pecans together until well blended. Place in refrigerator until morning.
The next morning
- Remove fillings and dough from the fridge.
- On a floured piece of parchment paper, roll out dough to a rectangular sheet of dough about 1/2 inch thick.
- Spoon cream cheese filling onto rolled dough, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches of dough around all edges.
- Spoon praline over top of cream cheese filling.
- Gently roll the longest side dough over the filling to meet the opposite edge. To close seams, gently pinch them together.
- Refrigerate dough for 1 hour. This step can be skipped if in a hurry, but keep in mind that it makes braiding much easier when chilled.
- Remove from fridge and transfer onto a clean parchment paper-lined baking sheet.
- Using a sharp knife (like that used to score bread), cut rolled dough lengthwise into 3. Be sure to leave 2 inches of uncut dough at the top.
- Braid together the three pieces and pinch together the end to reseal into one braided log.
- Shape braided dough into a circle, cover with a light tea towel, and allow to rise for an hour before baking.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Just before baking, coat with egg wash (made with the 2 egg whites beaten).
- Place into preheated oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Mix together icing while your cake bakes.
- Once baking is complete, remove from oven and allow to cool.
- Hide the plastic baby by gently lifting the completely cooled cake and placing the baby under a small section of the cake. Being careful not to damage the cake, press the cake back down.
- Drizzle the cake with icing and top with purple, green, and yellow/gold decorative sugars and sprinkles.
King cake can be left at room temperature for 5 days. Undecorated king cake can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and placed into a freezer-safe bag to freeze for later enjoyment. It can be frozen for up to 3 months. Simply remove it from the freezer, allow it to come to room temperature before decorating, and enjoy!
HANNAH N. MCCLURE is an old soul homemaker and mother of four from Ohio. Gardening, keeping bees, sewing, raising chickens/seasonal hogs, and baking/cooking from scratch are a few things she enjoys in her homemaking. Always learning and always chasing her littles.
Find her on Instagram @muddyoakhenhouse
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.