Ash Wednesday is coming up quickly, and some of you have probably decided to give something up for Lent. Let’s celebrate by making a dessert that represents everything opposite of that: Mardi Gras king cake. I know, I know—Mardi Gras is upon us—just go with it.
Borderline sickly sweet, dense, covered in glitter and with a toy inside, king cake is a unicorn in dessert form. I’ve never made one, but part of the excitement is that this could go horribly wrong.
I adapted the following recipe from Southern Living. It makes two cakes.
For the brioche:
16 oz sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp bourbon (optional)
1 (1/4 oz) envelope active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1 small plastic baby (obviously) or large almond
For the filling:
3/4 cup sugar
16 oz cream cheese
2 tsp vanilla paste
1-2 tbsp orange zest
For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tbsp bourbon (optional)
2 tbsp orange or lemon juice
1 tbsp water
1/4 tsp vanilla paste
Green, yellow, and purple sugar
-Take the first four ingredients from the brioche section and heat in a saucepan on low until the butter melts. You can let it cook to just shy of a boil, but stir frequently. Set this aside to cool to about 100 degrees. I don’t follow rules well, so I didn’t check temp when I made this, the point is to make sure it’s not hot enough to kill the yeast when you combine them later.
-Mix yeast, ½ cup of warm water and tablespoon of sugar together and let sit for 5 minutes to activate.
-Add sour cream mixture, yeast, eggs, bourbon, and two cups of flour to a standing mixer. On medium, mix until smooth. Slowly add the remaining flour until a thick, soft bread dough forms. Bread flour will give you an airy texture; all-purpose will be denser. I used all-purpose—I like multi-taskers in my small kitchen.
-Knead the dough until uniform then place in a greased bowl. Roll it around a bit to get all the dough greased. Cover and let rise for one hour; it should double in size.
-Time for filling! Beat all ingredients until smooth. I use vanilla paste instead of extract (the taste is less alcohol-y). Cinnamon makes a good alternative to the orange. Praline pecans are a popular option as well. Since this makes two cakes, you can split the cream cheese and do two flavors.
-After the rise, punch the dough down and split into two equal sections. Roll these out into 22-by-12-inch rectangles. (Don’t stress on size, though.) Spread half of the cream cheese mixture on each rectangle and roll them up lengthwise.
-Place rolls seam down on well-greased baking sheets. Wet and press the ends together, forming a large ring. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
-After this rise is when you insert the baby. I know—plastic in an oven. You can use a large almond if it makes you squeamish. Press the toy through the bottom of the cake into the center layer, careful not to pop it out the top. This tradition dates back to European pagans. The baby was originally a bean, and the lucky one to find it was the next ritual sacrifice to Saturn. Over time the bean became a baby, because Saturn ate his children. Which is lovely. If you “win” today, you just get to make the next king cake (symbolic sacrifice).
-Bake at 375 degrees for 16 minutes. The cakes should be golden when done. Let cool for a few minutes.
-Add glaze ingredients together in a bowl and whisk until glossy and paint-like. You can use orange or lemon juice for the citrus kick. I decided on blood orange to give the glaze a nice pink color. My recipe makes a thin glaze that goes on light and dries relatively clear. For a more traditional glaze, add more powdered sugar. If dropping the bourbon, use milk or water. Sprinkle with alternating bands of green, yellow, and purple colored sugar and you’re done.
There is a part of me that wanted this experiment to fail badly just so we could all laugh about it, but it went great. Try out some of your favorite fillings and email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let me know how your king cake turns out.
Beginning to end: 2 hours (includes wait for rise)
Servings: 32 (two cakes)