It’s back to holiday-themed baked goods again this week, dear readers. What can I say? I love a good celebration, and every good celebration—especially one requiring 40 days of fasting afterwards—needs a colorful dessert.
I used to celebrate Mardi Gras like every other good college student or young adult—with shots and raucous parties—but now that I’m older, that seems like a bit much for a Tuesday night.
But king cake, a traditional Mardi Gras celebration cake made of soft, supple pastry dough and filled with a sweet cream cheese spread—now that sounds more like it. As soon as the Southern Living recipe hit my email inbox last week, I knew I had to try my hand at making it.
King cake, or king’s cake, as it’s also known, is a specialty cake made during the Christmas season throughout Europe and during the pre-Lent season in the United States. While Mardi Gras is celebrated through the States, it’s in the southeastern part of the country—Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi—where the real traditions of Carnival are still carried out.
For instance, the king cake has always had a starring role at the traditional Mardi Gras feast. A small trinket, often a baby (said to be a symbol of the baby Jesus), is placed inside the cake after it’s baked. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby will have to prepare the king cake the following year, or host the next year’s Mardi Gras party. Since I decided to make this cake on a whim, I didn’t have a baby to hide inside it, but I think the Carnival gods will appreciate all the hard work I put into it anyway.
King Cake is what you might call over the top—it’s basically a giant, delicious, bread-y doughnut, and this recipe make TWO cakes, so prepare to have a lot of people over for dessert. Or send one to work with your hubby like I did.
I actually think this is more like a coffeecake than a traditional dessert cake. That’s not only because of it’s yeasty taste and light and airy texture, but because of how it’s made. Making king cake is a bit of a workout, let me tell you. But a little bit of arm work never hurt anyone, and there’s actually something quite therapeutic about rhythmically kneading the soft dough on the counter top. However, this is definitely a recipe where it’s fun to a friend, especially since it takes a few hours from start to finish because the dough needs time to rise. (Thanks for helping, Rae!)
To speed up the rising process, I preheat my oven to its lowest possible setting (170˚F) and then turn it off completely when it comes time for the dough to rise. I cover the dough and put it in the center of the warm oven with the door propped open slightly to let the temperature drop to about 90-100˚F. After about 10 minutes, I close the oven door and let the bread finish rising in the nice, warm oven. It’s really helpful on chilly winter days when room temperature isn’t as warm as it usually is, so the bread would take longer to double in size.
Also, I made my own colored sugars for this cake, and you should too (so much cheaper!). Put a few tablespoons of sugar into a small container, add a drop of food coloring, put the lid on, and shake to combine. I like to sift the sugar into a small bowl to separate out any wet, lumpy sugar clumps.
I had so much fun making, photographing, and eating this festive cake. Enlist a friend, head to the kitchen, and make it for your Fat Tuesday celebration!
Cream Cheese-Filled King Cake
This recipe is adapted from Southern Living. You can use all-purpose flour instead of bread flour, but the texture will be more dense. The bread flour produces a light, airy cake. Prep time: 30-40 minutes; Rise: 1 hour, 30 minutes; Bake: 15 minutes; Click here to download a printable PDF copy of this recipe.
1 (16-ounce) container sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 (1/4-ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons milk
Purple-, green-, and gold-tinted sparkling sugar sprinkles
1. Cook first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts. Set aside, and cool mixture to 100° to 110°.
2, Meanwhile, stir together yeast, 1/2 cup warm water, and 1 tablespoon sugar in a 1-cup glass measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes.
3. Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, and 2 cups flour at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until smooth. Reduce speed to low, and gradually add enough remaining flour (4 to 4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms. (I switched from the paddle attachment to a dough hook halfway through this process.)
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic (about 10-20 minutes). You can use the window pane test, in which you gently stretch a small piece of dough between your thumbs and your forefingers, to see if the dough has been kneaded enough. If the dough can be delicately stretched without ripping until you can almost see through it, the dough is ready. Place it in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease top.
5. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk. (See the introduction to this post for an alternative method that may speed up the proofing process.)
6. Punch down dough, and divide in half. Roll each portion into a 22- x 12-inch rectangle. Beat 3/4 cup sugar, cream cheese, 1 egg, and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Spread cream cheese mixture evenly on each dough rectangle, leaving 1-inch borders.
7. Roll up each dough rectangle, jelly-roll fashion, starting at 1 long side. Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with second dough roll.
8. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
9. Bake at 375° for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden. Slightly cool cakes on pans on wire racks (about 10 minutes).
10. Meanwhile, prepare the creamy glaze: Stir together first 4 ingredients. Stir in 2 tablespoons milk, adding additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until spreading consistency. You can also make the colored sugars during this time if you’re making them yourself.
11. Drizzle Creamy Glaze evenly over warm cakes; sprinkle with colored sugars, alternating colors and forming bands. Let cool completely.