If you cannot make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras on Tuesday, March 4th, you can “laissez les bon temps rouler” at home by making King Cake.
In many European countries, King Cake is associated with the festival of the Epiphany, or “Twelfth Night” in the Christmas season. The ring shaped-cake is said to represent either the gifts given by the three kings to Jesus or the circuitous route the kings took to arrive at their destination. French and Spanish settlers brought the King Cake to New Orleans, where is has become an integral part of Mardi Gras.
There are many versions of King Cake; some with fillings of cream cheese or nuts, but all share rich, buttery yeast dough and a hidden treasure. Historically, a tiny ceramic baby, a dried bean or nut was hidden in the cake. Now, tiny plastic babies are most commonly used. According to different versions of King Cake tradition, whoever receives the slice of cake containing the baby is the king or queen of the party, gets good luck, or is responsible for buying the next King Cake.
1 package active dry yeast
1 Cup milk, warmed to no more than 110 degrees
½ Cup sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
5 egg yolks
1 Teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ sticks of butter, melted 4 Cups flour (half cake flour and half all purpose flour produces a nice result)
1 Teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 Teaspoon salt
1 ½ Cups confectioners’ sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
2-3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
Purple, Green & Gold (or Yellow) Decorative Sugar and plastic baby
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, dissolve the yeast and sugar in milk. Let the yeast mixture sit several minutes until bubbles form. Add the lemon zest, vanilla, egg yolks and butter. Beat a minute or more until well combined. Swap the paddle attachment on the stand mixer for the dough hook.
Whisk the nutmeg and salt into the flour and add slowly to the yeast mixture.
Knead approximately 10 minutes with dough hook attachment. The dough will pull away from sides of bowl and become smooth and elastic. If dough is very sticky, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.
Remove bowl from mixer and form dough into a ball. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
On a floured surface, divide the dough into three equal portions and roll each piece into a long, snake-like piece. Braid the dough and form braid into a ring, pinching ends together to seal.
Place ring on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let dough rise again, 30 minutes to 1 hour. Bake King Cake for 30 minutes in a 375 degree oven.
Combine confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice and evaporated milk to create a glaze for the King Cake.
Wash and dry plastic baby and insert through the bottom of the cake.
Drizzle cooled cake with glaze, and sprinkle with decorative sugars while glaze is still wet.
Note: If you are nervous about your guests choking on the hidden baby, you can poke multiple pieces of ribbon through the cake, attaching just one of them to the plastic baby.