Rolling a strip for braiding. Once the dough has risen, you punch it down, divide it into three pieces, and roll each of those into three long logs. You then braid the strips. Taking the braid, you pull the ends together to form a circle, pinching the ends together, making the final shape of the king cake.
“There’s this little store down the road that sure makes a good king cake. I can just go to Walmart and get a pretty good one actually, but the one down there is pretty premium. If you were down here I’d show you. Tastes good. They’ve been doing them for a long time. Pretty well known. Famous for king cakes. Not far from where I live. They’re pretty big. Better than Walmart I think. Though Walmart is pretty good. I just got one from Walmart this weekend. Saturday maybe. I had to go over there to pick up some things. I was walking through the produce section, and I saw the king cakes and put one in the cart. Their produce section is pretty good. And so is their bakery for some stuff. I guess only some stuff for their produce, though; I like their tomatoes. Their lettuce is horrible. It’s hard to get a good tomato at a grocery store.”
“Where are you now?” I asked my dad.
“Oh I was at home when you called. I’m in the car now going to get a king cake and see if that store down the road has any good produce. I’ll text you the name of the store later if I can remember.”
People were staring at the plastic cake carrier on the subway as I was bringing in my two king cakes to work. I’d taken the dough from the original recipe and divided it into thirds to make three cakes: two for my office and one for my wife to bring in to hers. The carrier is see-through, so everyone could see the cakes with their gold, purple, and green sugar-sprinkled frosting. I’d like to imagine that they were covetous of the cakes, wishing they could have a bite, but they were probably curious as to why some random guy was carrying such a big round plastic thing around on the subway. Too much room, get out of my way.
I figured I could make a king cake. I figured I should make a king cake. Being from Mobile, Ala., the home of the first Mardi Gras celebration in America (not New Orleans, Mobilians are sensitive about that), I thought it’d only be right that I tried once, at least. Maybe it’d be on par with a local Louisiana bakery? The bar was high according to my father. But at the very least it’d be homemade by me and there are points for that, and I could always blame a screw-up on the recipe. I’d bring it in to work, because what did I need with a bunch of king cake at home. I’d be an authority on king cakes.
(Photos/video courtesy DB)
A king cake (sometimes shown as kingcake, kings’ cake, king’s cake, or three kings cake) is a type of cake associated in a number of countries with the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season; in other places, it is associated with the pre-Lenten celebrations of Mardi Gras/Carnival.
The “king cake” takes its name from the biblical kings. In Western Christian liturgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany — commemorated on January 6 — celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5) is popularly known as Twelfth Night (the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve until this night). The season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelfth Night and Epiphany Day), up until the end of Shrovetide: Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” or Shrove Tuesday; the day before the start of Lent.
U.S. Gulf Coast king cake
In the southern United States, the tradition was brought to the area by Basque settlers in 1718. Originally, it was a cinnamon-filled bready cake eaten to celebrate Epiphany, but it is now associated with Carnival (also known as Mardi Gras). Celebrated across the Gulf Coast region from the Florida Panhandle to East Texas, King cake parties are documented back to the 18th century. The king cake of the Louisiana tradition comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough. It may be topped with icing or sugar, which may be colored to show the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow, and purple: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Traditionally, a small plastic or porcelain baby is hidden in the king cake.
Originally, the baby was placed in the cake to symbolize baby Jesus. Fava beans were also used to represent Jesus. Today, the baby symbolizes luck and prosperity to whoever finds it in his/her slice of cake. In some traditions, the finder of the baby is designated “king” or “queen” for the evening. That person is also responsible for purchasing next year’s cake, or for throwing the next Mardi Gras party.
I didn’t have a recipe for a king cake, so I went online and just searched “king cake recipe.” Twenty million hits. I started sifting through the first hundred or so (seriously). I began eliminating many of them pretty quickly. Too pretentious. Too complicated. Too fancy. Needs a Kitchen Aid stand mixer (I don’t have room for this!).
It came down to three recipes, one from a “Louisiana baker,” one from allrecipes.com, and one from Epicurious. Epicurious used the most butter and didn’t include any bastardization (Cream cheese? Really?), so I went with that one.
Cake: Milk, sugar, yeast, flour, eggs, and butter were the base. Flavor: cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon zest, vanilla extract. Frosting: powdered sugar, lemon juice, condensed milk, and colored sugar sprinkles.
When I finally got around to making the cake, it was late at night on a Sunday. It took two periods of rising, plenty of kneading, and then some baking. I started falling asleep before I could do the frosting, so I had to wake up at 5 am the next morning to make it and frost the cakes before work so I could bring them in. I also had to put in the babies.
So I frosted them, sprinkled them, babied them, boxed them up, and took the subway.
But before I put them out at the office, I had to make a warning sign about the plastic babies in the cakes. Many people here in New York City don’t really know much about king cakes, if at all, so they certainly wouldn’t know that they might choke on something inside of a braided cinnamon cake. I also printed out the Wikipedia info as excerpted above. The warning in verse:
There is a plastic baby
In this Mardi Gras king cake.
It symbolizes good
Luck! Be careful
Not to bite into it.
Let me know if you get
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
(Photos/video courtesy DB)
After trying some cake, my coworker asked me, “So, you sent one of these to your father, right?”
“Maybe next year,” I said. “You think he would like it?”
She is a pretty serious baker, taking her cakes to competitions around the country. She takes a week off from work every year to go to baking conferences. I hold her opinion in very high regard.
“I like it. You did good,” she said. “He will love it. You’re his son. He should know what his son can do. His opinion matters more than mine, but I think you got it perfectly.”
I texted him a photo of my finished cakes to let him know that, even without Walmart, I could indeed have some king cake for Mardi Gras.
“Walmart king cakes not too good, though. They have some specialty bakers that do a real good job at Woods. It’s the one here in Alexandria. Hope you have a great Mardi Gras.”
He pulled back on Walmart, but he did finally get back to me about the name of the local bakery.
Serves: Serves 10-12
• 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 2 tablespoons dry yeast
• 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 cup melted butter
• 5 egg yolks, beaten
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
• 3 teaspoons cinnamon
• Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
• 2 cups powdered sugar
• 1/4 cup condensed milk
• 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
• Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
• 1 fève (fava bean) or plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking
1. For the cake, pour the warm 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.
2. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
3. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
4. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
6. Once it’s doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing, while the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it’s a touch too loose, add a little more powdered sugar.
8. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.
As you knead the dough for this Mardi Gras cake, watch for it to begin to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. If that doesn’t happen (because the moisture content in flour fluctuates with the humidity), add a spoonful or two more flour.
Donnie Boman is a writer, baker, and photographer from Mobile, Alabama.