In my carefree youth, my friends and I would pile into a car and make a yearly pilgrimage to New Orleans to celebrate what may be the best party in the world. We’d eat mountains of crawfish, drink too many hurricanes and line up with thousands of others to enjoy the many parades snaking through the streets on a daily basis as Mardi Gras approached, shouting “Throw me something, mister!” in hopes of catching colorful strands of plastic beads thrown from the floats. If you’ve never gone, it’s one for the bucket list.
Even if you’re not making the trip this year, you can still celebrate the last hurrah before Lent by throwing your own Mardi Gras party. Get plastic beads to distribute, stock the bar and be sure to bake up what is probably the most iconic food of the holiday: The King Cake.
A tradition since the late 1800s, king cake is a sweetened bread, shaped into a ring and decorated in green, yellow and purple (the official colors of Mardi Gras). Hidden inside the seasonal cake is a coveted prize in the form of a small figure of a baby. Once made of gold, but more commonly plastic these days, the reveler who finds the trinket in the cake will enjoy good luck in the year ahead and will share their good fortune by providing a king cake at the next Mardi Gras party.
If you found the baby in the cake last year or you’re kicking off a new tradition, this recipe for an easy-to-make king cake will set the tone in sweet style at any Mardi Gras celebration. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Despite its name, king cake is actually a yeast-raised bread. Combine 1 cup of milk and 1 tablespoon yeast in a stand mixer bowl. Although most yeast is stable, it is easy to see the yeast is active as it slowly begins to bubble in the milk.
Add 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup dry milk, 4 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup melted butter and 2 eggs to the mixing bowl and knead using a dough hook until a soft, supple dough forms.
Transfer dough to an oiled vessel, cover and allow to rise 60 minutes until puffy and nearly double in size.
For filling, combine 2 (8 oz) packages cream cheese, 1 egg, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
Punch dough down on a lightly oiled surface and roll into a rectangle roughly 24” x 7”. Spread filling over dough from end to end, leaving an inch or so of space along each long edge.
Fold dough in half lengthwise and pinch along edge to seal,
With pinched seam down, form a ring with the dough and pinch the ends together. Place on a greased baking tray and allow to rise 90 minutes.
Lightly whisk 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of water together to make an egg wash and brush over the surface of the cake. The egg wash will give the bread a rich, brown sheen and is an easy way to make just about any bread prettier.
In a 350 degree oven, bake 50 minutes. If browning too quickly, tent with aluminum foil for the last 15 minutes. Remove from oven, let rest 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to finish cooling.
Once cake has cooled completely, turn it over and press plastic or porcelain baby into the cake. Traditionally, the baby is baked into the cake, but with concerns over heating plastics and the possible choking hazard of a foreign object in food, placing the cake underneath the cake after baking has become a common solution.
For icing, combine 3 cups powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 3+ tablespoons milk and whisk until smooth. Spread over the top of the cake.
Before the icing hardens, dust with alternating green, purple and gold sugars to complete the cake.
Let your guests know to keep an eye out for the baby in the cake. Whoever finds it is said to find good fortune in the days to come and is also expected to provide the king cake at the next party. Be sure to share this recipe with them!