New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake, a yeasty, praline-filled sweet bread and covered with multicolored sugar and white icing, dates back to Epiphany celebrations in 18th century France. Pictured are various stages of the baking process. Clockwise, the rich dough is kneaded, scaled (divided and weighed) before the four portions are rolled out into long strips and filled with a praline mixture, sealed and then braided. Finally the finished cake waits to be iced. (Staff photos by John Coffelt)
The beads, parades and revelry are all icons of Mardi Gras, but the unsung ruler of Fat Tuesday’s culinary delights is the King Cake.
The cake, called gateau de Roi to the old-timers, is not really a cake but a yeasty pastry filled with praline and topped with lots of sugar and icing – glazed in purple, green and yellow.
The cake, like the carnival itself, is seeped in tradition, most often associated with Epiphany and the pre-Lent celebration, Mardi Gras.
The King Cake’s origins, according to MardiGrasunmasked.com a New Orleans guide site, come from galas that were pretty common for French royalty by the 18th century.
These soirees were called, in French, les bals des Rois or the “balls of kings.”
According to the site, “On Twelfth Night, [or Epiphany – the day honoring the visit of the Wise Men,] the celebrants would wait until the stroke of midnight to cut … a French-style pastry, filled with frangipane (made from almond paste, eggs, butter and sugar).”
Jump ahead roughly 300 years and roughly the same cake has become a Mardi Gras staple alongside the beads, masks and parades.
According the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s best-rated King Cake bakery, Manny Randazzo King Cakes, (which, incidentally, can mail their wonderful cakes and have them at your door in about 48 hours), almost everything about the delicacy is symbolic.
“It’s decorated in royal colors of purple, which signifies justice, green for faith and gold for power.
“The pastry resembles a jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men. In the past, items like coins, beans, pecans or peas were also hidden in each cake.”
Nowadays, a plastic baby is substituted for the bean. The person who finds the baby must bring a cake or host the party next time. Receiving the baby is believed to be a good omen.
Making a King Cake
While a little more involved that a regular cake, baking a King Cake is in many ways easier to make, or so I found working from a mix available from World Market.
Yeast is at the most basic level of the King Cake.
Like its distant culinary cousin, a cinnamon bun, King Cake recipes use yeast as the leavening agent rather than baking powder.
The result is relatively stiff dough that, unlike cake batter, can be shaped rather than molded.
To make the dough, I mixed flour and warm water and lots of butter. I tossed the supplied yeast for my trusted bulk instant yeast.
The 1901 edition if The Times-Picayune’s “Creole Cookbook” describes the dough as brioche batter, a sweet, high-fat bread and the dough stayed true to the original formula
The turn-of-the-century book calls for kneading one handed (what that means is beyond me) and the kit came with a zipper bag to mix and knead the dough in, I opted for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer that mixed the dough in about five minutes. I finished the kneaded for few minutes by hand.
Whatever method you use, continue kneading until a portion of dough will stretch to a thin, translucent “window-pane.”
Some bakers shorten the process by pausing mid-cycle, a in a process called autolysis, to allow the moisture to soak into the
Once the dough is soft and smooth, it is placed in a covered bowl in a warm location for its first proof, or fermentation cycle, until it doubles in volume (about and hour to an hour-and-a-half).
Randazzo’s dough is braided, but many recipes call for rolling, jellyroll-style, the sugary praline before shaping the dough for its final proof.
Decorating the baked, cooled King Cake is the best part. First a fondant of sugar, milk and vanilla is drizzled over the cake. Then colored sugar is sprinkled over the cake. The baby is slipped under the cake.
All in all, making the mix was a bit more involved than baking say…cookies, but it was fun way to spend a Saturday morning.
Buying your cake
Mam Papaul’s Mardi Gras King Cake Mix, which had everything included, is available at World Market and online for just under $10. It makes an excellent cake without having to find all the ingredients. For my next cake, however, I’ll make some extra icing.
For those less adventurous in the kitchen, Louisianan bakeries, Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery, www.kingcakes.com, and Manny Randazzo King Cakes, www.randazzokingcake.com, ship really good King Cakes for just under $50.
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) butter, melted
3/4 cup (6 ounces) lukewarm milk
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
3 1/2 cups (14 3/4 ounces) All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) nonfat dried milk powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast or one packet of active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon lemon oil, or 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
3 teaspoons chopped pecans
2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
pinch of salt
Yellow, purple, and green fine sparkling sugars
Line with parchment paper or lightly grease a large baking sheet.
To prepare the dough: Using a stand mixer, electric hand mixer, or bread machine, mix and knead all of the dough ingredients together to form a smooth, very silky dough. You may try kneading this dough with your hands, if desired; but be advised it’s very sticky and soft. Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 1 hour.
Transfer dough to a large cutting board or clan countertop. Let the dough rest while you prepare the filling.
To prepare the filling: mix the ingredients, adding sugar if needed to form corn meal-like consistency.
If braiding the dough divide the dough and shape into four thin strips. If using the jellyroll method, roll the dough into a 5-by-30 inch rectangle.
Sprinkle the filling down the center of the long strip of dough. Roll the long side and pinch the edges together to seal the filling inside as much as possible. If braiding, pinch the strips together, then alternating from each side plait the dough.
Transfer to the sheet and shape into a ring, pinching the ends together.
Cover and let rise for about an hour, until it’s puffy. Preheat the oven to 375 F while the dough rises.
Bake for about 25 minutes,
To make the icing: Beat together all of the icing ingredients, dribbling in the final 2 teaspoons milk till the icing is thick yet pourable.
(Recipe adapted from King Author Flour)