A Royal Tradition

New Orleans native shares her love of King Cakes for Mardi Gras

Baking—in particular, baking King Cakes—gets me through the long winter.

Growing up in Cajun culture as I did meant there was always a celebration around the corner with special foods to mark the occasion. From January to March, I would have made several dozen of the cakes that Carnival revelers bake, share and eat to celebrate the Mardi Gras season.

Watching the second rise of the cake-like bread dough while listening to a “second line” jazz band is typical in my kitchen until Mardi Gras, which is March 5 this year. While I’m not a great baker by any means, King Cake—that I can do!

Sprinkling sugar on top of the cake at the end is a mess that my son is all too happy to get involved in because once it dries we can slice it up and have us a party! The best part? Seeing who is lucky enough to get the baby hidden in the cake.

A little history: The King Cake season often starts Jan. 6 to commemorate the day the three kings visited baby Jesus—thus the plastic baby hidden in the cake. The cake-making ends right after the big feast of Mardi Gras, because it’s the start of the great fast of Lent. As a child growing up in New Orleans, this was too good to be true. Cake every day for 40 days!

The cake is like a gigantic cinnamon roll formed into the shape of a ring, representing a king’s crown, and is traditionally decorated with three brightly colored sugars—purple symbolizing justice, green for faith and gold for power. Whoever gets the baby inside the cake is “king for the day” and has the pleasure of bringing the next King Cake.

I’m sharing my recipe so you can give it a go—and create a new tradition to combat the winter doldrums.

Traditional King Cake
Recipe by Rebecca Ory Hernandez

½ cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
½ cup cane sugar, divided
3 ½ to 4 ½ cups sifted flour, divided
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon lemon or orange zest
2 tablespoons sour cream
½ cup warm milk
1 egg
5 egg yolks
9 tablespoons softened butter, divided
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 egg slightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
1 one-inch plastic baby doll

Colored sugars
Green, purple and yellow food coloring
12 tablespoons sugar, divided

King cake icing
2 cups powdered cane sugar
2 tablespoons water

Process for cake
Pour the warm water into a small shallow bowl, and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar into it. Allow the yeast and sugar to rest for three minutes, then mix thoroughly. Set bowl in a warm place for 10 minutes or until yeast bubbles up and mixture almost doubles in volume.

Combine 3 ½ cups of flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg and salt, and sift into a large mixing bowl. Stir in lemon or orange zest. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, sour cream and milk. Add egg and egg yolks and, using a wooden spoon, slowly combine dry ingredients into the yeast/milk mixture. When mixture is smooth, beat in 8 tablespoons butter, a tablespoon at a time, and continue to beat 2 minutes or until dough can be formed into a medium soft ball.

Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead like bread. While kneading, add up to 1 cup more of flour (one tablespoon at a time) sprinkled over the dough, as needed. When dough is no longer sticky, knead 10 minutes more until shiny and elastic.

Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a large bowl evenly with one tablespoon softened butter. Place dough ball in the bowl and rotate until the entire surface is buttered. Cover bowl with a moderately thick kitchen towel and place in a draft-free spot for about 1 ½ hours, or until the dough doubles in volume.

Remove dough from bowl and place on lightly floured surface. Using your fist, punch dough down with a heavy blow. Divide dough into three equal long strips and braid. Pinch the ends together to form an oval and place onto a buttered baking sheet. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top. Cover dough with towel and set it in draft-free spot for 45 minutes until the circle of dough doubles in volume.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Make an egg wash by combining beaten egg with 1 tablespoon milk. Brush top and sides of cake with the egg wash and bake on buttered baking sheet on middle rack for 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown.
Remove cake from oven and place on a wire rack to cool. If desired, “hide” the plastic baby in the bottom of the cake.

Process for colored sugars
Squeeze several drops of one of the food colors in small bowl. Combine with 4 tablespoons sugar and, using your fingers, mix them together quickly. Set aside on wax paper and wash hands to remove color. Repeat process for the other 2 colors.

Process for icing
Combine sugar and water until smooth. If icing is too stiff, slowly add more water until spreadable. Spread icing over top of warm cake. Immediately sprinkle the colored sugars in individual rows consisting of about 2 rows of green, purple and yellow.
Serve with café au lait.

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