King cakes are a traditional Mardi Gras dessert, and according to legend the royal colors of purple, green and gold on the cake honor the three kings who visited the Christ child on Epiphany. The season for king cakes is from January 5 to Shrove Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras, before the Lenten season begins. But king cakes can be made year-round for many festive occasions, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, birthdays, etc, just choose the colors of icing and sugars to match the occasion. It is a rolled cake from an enriched brioche dough made with milk, butter, and egg. There are many possibilities for fillings. You can crumble your favorite candy bars or mix your own concoction with various ingredients such as cream cheese, fruits, cinnamon, chocolate chips, pecans, Nutella.
I must confess that the first time I tackled this I was a little intimidated by the job of making a king cake for my husband, who had tasted some truly good, traditional king cakes. After doing a lot of reading, I found several recipes that seemed pretty authentic and I managed to cobble them together to come up with a version that we like. This recipe makes one small cake approximately 10-inches in diameter, which gives about 12 slices. I included instructions for both the cream cheese and fruit filling, which is my husband’s favorite, and the traditional pecan raisin filling.
The dough is easy to work with, but does require a warm environment to rise properly. We keep our house in the low to mid 60s during the winter, which is not warm enough to rise this dough (trust me, I have bombed on this dough more than once). So I recommend finding a truly warm place in your house, perhaps inside the microwave or on top of your stove with the light above it turned on, otherwise you may have to wait quite a while for the dough to rise.
Traditionally a surprise is hidden in the cake, either a baby, or a pecan, or a bean. The lucky winner of the surprise is supposed to bring a king cake to the next party. Craft stores sell mini plastic babies for baby shower favors which can be tucked into the cake after it has come out of the oven.
You can often find colored sugars at craft stores such as Michael’s, A. C. Moore, or even Party City.
Instead of colored sugar, you can use colored jimmies, though I have had difficulty finding purple/lavender jimmies at local stores. Michael swears that he's had king cakes with purple jimmies. I'm still looking, but I've only been able to find them online.
[Updated January 2008.]
Mardi Gras King Cake with Fruit and Cream Cheese Filling
- stand mixer with paddle attachment and dough hook
- microwave-safe bowl or small saucepan
- medium bowl for rising the dough, lightly coated with cooking spray
- baking sheet or large pizza pan, lightly coated with cooking spray
- tin can (tuna can) or other round shape, approximately 3" (8cm) diameter, exterior coated with cooking spray
- 1 plastic baby for hiding in the cake (or a bean or a pecan)
- ¼ cup milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup water (warm, 105 - 115° F)
- 1 package active dry yeast (or 2 teaspoons instant yeast)
- 1 egg
- 2⅓ cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
Cream Cheese Filling
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- drop or two of milk
- 14 ounces fruit filling (of your choice, or you can use jam)
- 2 cups sifted confectioners sugar
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (softened)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (rum, or almond extract)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons milk
- dark green sugar
- dark lavender sugar
- yellow or gold sugar
Pecan Raising Filling (from the Culinary Institute of New Orleans)
- 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
- ⅔ cup pecans (chopped)
- ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ cup raising
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- ½ cup unsalted butter (melted)
- Heat the milk and butter over low heat in a small saucepan (or in the microwave) until it steams and the butter melts. Add the sugar and salt and stir until they dissolve. Let cool to lukewarm.
- In the bowl of the stand mixer, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir to dissolve. (NOTE: If you use instant yeast, do not add it directly to the water. Stir it in with the flour.)
- Add the milk mixture, the egg, and 1-½ cups flour. Mix on low with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add the rest of the flour and mix until all of the flour is incorporated. Push flour down with a spatula as necessary. Once the dough has come together in somewhat of a ball, attach the dough hook. Increase speed to 2 or 3 and knead until dough clings to the hook and is satiny and elastic and blisters appear on the surface. If the dough is too wet, it will stick in the bottom. Just sprinkle in a teaspoon or two of flour until the dough clings to the hook.
- Place the dough in the prepared medium bowl, turning the dough to grease the top or spritzing the top with cooking spray (canola oil). Tilt the bowl back and forth to make sure the dough doesn’t stick. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (85° F), free from drafts for 1-½ to 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.
Filling (pick one)
- Cream Cheese: In the bowl of the stand mixer, mix the cream cheese, sugar, flour, vanilla, and milk together until creamy and light.
- Pecan: Mix the sugar, pecans, flour, raisins, and cinnamon together. Pour melted butter over this and mix until crumbly. Spread over the dough and roll it up. Bake as directed above.
Shape the Dough
- After the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll and shape it into an 18- x 10-inch rectangle. Spread the cream cheese mixture on dough and top with the fruit filling. Roll the dough, jellyroll fashion, starting from a long side. Brush the edge with milk and press to seal the seam. Place the dough roll seam side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. You might need someone to help you move the roll or hold the pan while you move it. Wrap the roll around the tin can. Bring the ends together to form a ring, moistening with milk and pinching edges together to seal.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
- PREHEAT oven to 375° F/190° C.
- Brush milk over the surface of the risen cake. Bake for 15 or 20 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack (transfer gently). Tuck the plastic baby somewhere into the cake through the bottom.
- In the bowl of the stand mixer, mix together the powdered sugar and butter. They will not be fully combined, but the butter should not have any large knobs visible. Stir in the vanilla. Add milk a little at a time to reach desired consistency for drizzling.
- Place a piece of wax paper under the wire rack. Drizzle the frosting on the cake and sprinkle with the colored sugars. Transfer the decorated cake to a serving plate and enjoy.