King Cake Fit for a Queen

(Kim O'Donnel)

Mardi Gras, the last night of revelry before the Christian season of Lent, is just a few days away, and to celebrate the final days of the pre-Lenten carnival, I’ve baked y’all a King cake.

A tradition dating to medieval Europe, King’s cake (aka Gateau de roi) is served on January 6 -- Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. In Christianity, Twelfth Night commemorates the visit of the three Kings to the baby Jesus 12 days after his birth. This day also marks the beginning of Carnival season.

Traditionally, King cake is ring-shaped and ornately decorated, often filled with nuts and/or dried fruit, heavily iced and just too darn sweet. Typically, a trinket is inserted inside the cake, usually a bean, a gold coin or a baby figurine, which is said to represent the baby Jesus. It’s said that good luck comes to the trinket finder -- but that person is also expected to either bring the next King cake or host the next Mardi Gras party. The cake is also decorated in purple, green and gold, traditional colors of Carnival season.

(Here's more great historical tidbits on King cake.)

I asked my friend and native son of New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen, for his suggestions on putting together a proper King cake, and here’s what he had to say: “The best King cakes are really cinnamon rolls shaped into a large ring, white icing and all, then dusted/painted with purple, green, and gold sugar. And a baby tucked inside, of course.”

For cinnamon rolls, I found a reliable recipe from a new Betty Crocker release, “Betty Crocker Baking Basics.” Rather than shaping the rolls into a ring, I arranged them snugly in rows in a rectangular baking tray so it would resemble a sheet cake. The results were lip smacking -- a buttery, tender dough, full of warm spice yet not cloyingly sweet, even with my cloak of powdered sugar icing.

But before I could declare my King cake project a success, I had to get my hands on the proper colored sugar and decorations. I found everything (and then some) at Home Cake Decorating Supply Co., a nifty old-time baking supply shop here in Seattle.

Ta-da! I think it looks marvelous, if I do say so myself. I’ve already been asked to do a repeat performance this weekend. This has been too much fun to wait 'til next year.

And yes! This glorious Mardi Gras eye candy can be all yours, too -- if you follow these steps:

(Kim O'Donnel)

After dough has doubled in size (about 90 minutes), place it on a lightly floured surface and roll out until you have something resembling a rectangle, about 15 x 10.

(Kim O'Donnel)

Raisins and pecans are scattered across the dough landscape...

(Kim O'Donnel)

...Then everything is rolled up lnto a long narrow log...

(Kim O'Donnel)

Dough log is sliced into 15-20 circular pieces and gets a second, albeit briefer proofing in baking pan.

(Kim O'Donnel)

I have enough plastic babies to make a dozen more King cakes. Who's game?

Cinnamon Rolls
From “Betty Crocker Baking Basics”
Complete cooking time, including prep: Just under four hours

3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages regular or fast-acting dry yeast (4 ½ teaspoons)
1 cup milk
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
Cooking spray to grease bowl and pan

½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick), room temperature
Optional: ½ cup raisins and/or ¼ cup finely chopped nuts

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk

In a large bowl, stir 2 cups of the flour, 1/3 cup sugar, salt and yeast with a wooden spoon until well mixed.

In a 1-quart saucepan, heat milk over medium heat until very warm and an instant-read thermometer readers 120-130 degrees. Add warm milk, ¼ cup butter and egg to flour mixture (I put everything in the bowl of a food processor, using dough blade and dough setting.)

Beat with an electric mixer (or a stand mixer if you have, or food processor) on low speed 1 minute, stopping frequently to scrape batter from side and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula, until flour mixture is moistened. Beat on medium speed one minute, stopping frequently to scrape bowl.

With a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining flour, about ½ cup at a time, until dough is soft (I scooped dough out of food processor into a bowl at this time), leaves side of bowl and is easy to handle – dough may be slightly sticky.

Sprinkle flour lightly on a countertop or large cutting board. Place dough on floured surface. Knead by folding dough toward you, then with the heels of your hands, pushing dough away from you with a short rocking motion. Move dough a quarter turn and repeat: Continue kneading five minutes, sprinkling surface with more flour if dough starts to stick, until dough is smooth and springy.

Spray a large bowl with the cooking spray. Place dough in bowl, turning dough to grease all sides. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm place about 90 minutes or until dough has doubled in size. Dough is ready if an indentation remains when you press your fingertips about ½ inch into the dough.

In a small bowl, mix ½ cup sugar and the cinnamon; set aside. Spray bottom and sides of a 13x9 inch pan with cooking spray. (I then lined pan with parchment with an overhang so I could lift out entire cake after baking.) Sprinkle flour lightly on work surface. Gently push your fist into the dough to deflate it. Pull dough away from side of the bowl, and place on floured surface.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using your hands or rolling pin, flatten dough into a 15 x10-inch rectangle. Spread ¼ cup butter over dough to within ½ inch of edges. Sprinkle with sugar-cinnamon mixture, raisins and nuts. Beginning at 15-inch side, roll doll up tightly. Pinch edge of dough into the roll to seal edge. Stretch and shape roll until even and about 15 inches long. (Mine was closer to 20 inches.) Using a serrated knife or length of dental floss, cut roll into one-inch slices.

Place slices slightly apart in the pan. Insert plastic baby somewhere in dough! Cover pan loosely with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm place about 30 minutes or until dough as doubled in size. Remove plastic.

Move oven rack to middle position of oven. Bake 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove from pan and place on a cooling rack (lift edges of parchment to help you). Cool five minutes.

In a small bowl, stir glaze ingredients until smooth, adding enough milk so glaze is thin enough to drizzle. Over the warm rolls, drizzle glaze from the tip of a tableware teaspoon, moving spoon back and forth to make thin lines of glaze. Serve warm.

KOD note: Decorate til your heart's content with colored sugar, doo-dads and Mardi Gras beads. Laissez les bon temps rouler!!

By Kim ODonnel |  February 19, 2009; 7:45 AM ET Baking , New Orleans
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How fun! My little agency is having a Mardi Gras happy hour after work on Tuesday. I think your King Cake will be just the thing to set the festive mood!

Posted by: Jess65 | February 19, 2009 9:53 AM

I've gotta ask-- how do you know the plastic baby won't melt? It sounds like a disaster in the making. It reminds me of a story my grandmother tells about using plastic toothpicks in stuffed cabbage where they melted into little blobs!

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | February 19, 2009 10:52 AM

That is my kind of cake!

Posted by: godairyfree | February 19, 2009 12:03 PM

Kim, I made your black bean burgers last night and added cooked sweet potato. They were pretty good. Thanks for the recipe!

Posted by: chiquita2 | February 19, 2009 12:04 PM

GirlScoutMom- You don't bake the baby. It is traditionally inserted into the bottom of the already baked king cake. I don't know whether Kim baked her baby or not. But, I would not try it.

Posted by: SweetieJ | February 19, 2009 2:22 PM

I made my first king cake last year, and I actually baked the baby (babies, there was a baby in every bite--7 white ones, and one African-american--that was the winner) inside. None of them melted, but a few tried to poke through while the dough was rising.

Posted by: tmayson | February 19, 2009 9:59 PM

Sorry to be late in replying to issue about baking the baby, folks. I did insert the baby in the cake before baking, and I can report that it is alive, well and has nary a melted scratch. It's a personal decision, I suppose; I've seen some recipes (including one from Emeril Lagasse) that call for pre-baking baby insertion while others vehemently oppose the idea. I've sent an email to another friend in New Orleans who might have more insight, and as soon as I hear from her, I'll share.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 19, 2009 10:21 PM

I love your blog and look forward to your posts, however on this subject I have to respectfully disagree. I've eaten a lot of King Cake (some bad, some good) and feel that this post is way off the mark. While every bakery has it's own version and shape, most containing some amount of spice, King Cake could never be mistaken as -- or substituted for -- cinnamon rolls. You've taken something that is truly local and special and rather than putting a new twist on an old (or bad recipe) have replaced it with Betty Crocker.

Posted by: ME2007 | February 20, 2009 5:02 PM

ME2007, thanks for your comments. If I hadn't gotten the blessing from native New Orleanian and chef Frank Brigtsen, it never would have occurred to me to make a King cake out of cinnamon rolls. Turned out great -- and I think she dressed up pretty good as well.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 20, 2009 8:17 PM

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