It’s Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnival. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. In 47 days, it will be Easter Sunday. Is anyone else confused?
A couple of years ago, my friend Niki told me about a cake with a plastic baby inside commonly seen during Mardi Gras. Over the next year I proceeded to ask Niki about 16 times, “Hey, what’s that baby cake again?” To which she happily replied, “King cake!”
A king cake is meant to be shared, and whoever finds the baby in their piece of king cake has to make a king cake to share next year. King cakes are named in honor of the three kings/wise men who brought gifts to Christ after his birth. It took the kings a few days to arrive in Bethlehem, and their arrival is celebrated as Twelfth Night (The Feast of the Epiphany). Twelfth Night represents the start of Carnival, a period of revelry that lasts through Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras).
Twelfth Night is always January 6th and Fat Tuesday is always 47 days prior to Easter. Fat Tuesday is called fat because it is the last day to feast before the fast or self-denial that typically accompanies the period of Lent. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Is anyone less confused?
I wanted to make a King Cake last year, but having no blog to be accountable to, the closest I got was eyeing a few in bakery windows. This year, I waited until the last minute, but I baked my own King Cake.
I was somewhat concerned with how my King Cake would look because all I had seen were pretty ugly, and by ugly, I mean they had a really messy look. To make the prettiest king cake possible, I braided three ropes of dough rather than laying one rope of dough out like a ring. A tip I ran across suggested placing a clean, empty coffee can in the center of the ring to help the king cake hold its shape. I used a wide glass instead of a coffee can, which I then removed prior to baking, and I was happy with the results.
I selected a very simple king cake recipe from New Orleans chef John Besh. Recipes for more elaborate king cakes include cream cheese or other fillings spread across the dough, but I kept my first king cake simple, using only cinnamon and lemon zest to flavor the dough. The cake was fairly bland, but the sweet glaze created the perfect balance. One word of caution, this King Cake dries out fast! I baked the cake on Saturday and by Monday, it was terribly dry.
King Cake is not something I’d choose for a sweet dessert, but it is a delicious snack that pairs wonderfully with a cup of coffee or tea. If you can’t celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, enjoy a piece of King Cake with friends wherever you are!
- For the Cake
- 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup butter, melted
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- For the Icing
- 2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1/4 cup condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
- Plastic baby party favor (to hide in the cake after baking)
- Pour the milk into a large bowl.
- Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
- Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest.
- Fold the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
- When the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a ball and turn out on a lightly floured surface.
- Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
- Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until the dough has doubled in volume, about 1½ hours.
- Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces.
- Roll each piece of dough into a long rope, making 3 ropes of equal length.
- Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braid into a circle, pinching the ends together to seal.
- Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and again allow it to rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes. If desired, place a clean coffee can or wide glass in the center of the circle to help the dough keep its shape.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake at 375 degrees F until golden brown, about 30 minutes. If you placed a can or a glass in the center of the cake, be sure to remove it before baking.
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes.
- While the cake cools, make the icing by whisking together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable.
- Tuck the plastic baby into underside of the cooled cake.
- Spread the icing over the top of the cooled cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is wet.
If the icing is too thick, add more condensed milk. The original recipe called for 1/4 cup, I used 1/2 cup of condensed milk for my King Cake icing.