“Oh my God! I found the baby! I can’t believe it!!” a delighted and smiling girlfriend cheers in my kitchen. She’s cut into the King Cake–a Louisiana Mardi Gras tradition–and has been “blessed” with good luck for the entire year, or as many blessings as a tri-colored baked good can possibly bestow.
I hand Anna her present (I believe King Cake winners should always receive some tangible gift besides the superstitious promise of good luck), and as the tradition goes, she’ll be bringing the next King Cake.
In high school, King Cakes were the stuff of French class fun facts when talking about Louisiana. They were “or, violet, et vert” (gold, purple, and green) and somehow, deep inside, there was a plastic little baby. The person who found the baby sometimes won a prize and was always promised good luck.
I realize this whole baby thing is a bit…well…”creepy” to follow the word choice of podcaster Russ Turley. And it’s true. Ain’t nothin’ stranger than slicing into a cake to find a baby. BUT, it’s tradition, albeit a weird one.
However, the King Cake does take its meaning from Christianity and the baby is always a “manger baby.” Some locals say that the baby inside represents the search for the baby Jesus (just like the Biblical story) whilst many think it’s a tradition from the 1870s that we just hold onto. Whatever the case, you want to get the baby. TRUST ME.
Now that I live in Baton Rouge, I have charged myself with cooking as many local dishes as possible and I must say, the King Cake is, hands down, the one with the most steps and stages. It seems so simple–bake a cake and add icing and sprinkles, but this local favorite is deceptively complicated. As my friend Tara recently blogged, the King Cake has some deceptively simple charm and requires much love and special attention. For her humorous and didactic essay, see here.
For the rest of my readers, I encourage you all to create your own King Cake whether you live in the Louisiana area or not. They’re delicious, pretty, and ever-so-fascinating when you must explain the baby inside. It may take you some time to prepare and bake the cake itself, but have no fear, whoever finds the baby is bringing it next year!
This recipe comes from the most unlikely of places. No, not Emeril, not some other famed Cajun chef, but a simple website dedicated to Mardi Gras: Mardi Gras Day.com. After comparing some recipes and working towards the best one, I decided this one was it.
* 1/2 cup warm water
* 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (2 packages)
* 1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
* 3 1/2-4 1/2 cups flour
* 1 teaspoon nutmeg
* 2 teaspoons salt
* 1 teaspoon lemon zest
* 1/2 cup warm milk
* 5 egg yolks
* 1 stick butter cut into 1 inch pieces & softened
* 1 egg slightly beaten with tablespoon milk
* 1 teaspoon cinnamon
* 1 (1-inch) baby doll
* 1/4 cup lemon juice
* 3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1.) Pour warm water into a small bowl and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar. Allow to sit for 3 minutes. Whisk after three minutes and allow to active for 10 minutes. You’ll know the yeast mixture is done when it has doubled in size and is foamy.
2.) In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients: 3 1/2 cups flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Use a sifter or a whisk to combine. Stir in lemon zest.
3.) Meanwhile, separate five egg yolks.
4.) Separate mixture to form a large hole in the center. Add yeast mixture, five egg yolks, and 1/2 cup warm milk to center of flour mixture.
5.) Mix to combine wet ingredients with dry ingredients slowly. Your dough will be shaggy and somewhat dry.
6.) Add your butter: the butter should be softened and mix in 1 tablespoon at a time until you have a nice sticky dough ball starting.
7.) Transfer dough ball to kitchenaid mixer with dough hook. Knead dough for 8-10 minutes using dough hook on lowest setting. You will most likely find that the dough is a little too wet/sticky. This is what the extra flour is for. Add 1/2- 3/4 cup flour during this process. After the dough has been kneading, transfer to a well floured surface.
8.) Shape dough into a ball making sure to dust the dough ball thoroughly.
9.) Place dough ball in a greased (with butter) bowl and cover. Allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
10.) On a floured surface, roll out dough ball and coat in flour and cinnamon.
11.) Stretch dough ball into a long thread (not too thin). Meanwhile make your icing (in this case, filling) by combining lemon juice with confectioners sugar by using a whisk.
12.) Using a rolling pin, flatten dough so that is twice as wide as your log when beginning. Spoon icing/filling into center leaving one inch perimeter all around. Fold dough over on top of itself and seal filling in. Now, transfer dough to a greased baking sheet and loop around.
13.) Beat an egg with 1 tablespoon milk. Using a silicone brush, paint the surface of the looped king cake. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
14.) Bake for 25 minutes at 350F.
15.) Allow King Cake to cool. Using a tablespoon, drizzle previously prepared frosting over the surface of the King Cake. A lot of the frosting may run off (this is typical of King Cake frosting), so continue to dip into the runny frosting and pour back over the King Cake. Eventually, you’ll get enough to stick. The rule of thumb with King Cakes is that you can never have too much frosting!
16.) Now, the fun part: put in the baby (anywhere you see fit, but so that it doesn’t show from the outside) and DECORATE! Using Purple, Gold, & Green sprinkles, decorate your King Cake. Typically, King Cakes have a tri-colored striping pattern, but many can be zaney or weird.
17.) Enjoy! Makes 12 servings.
Written by: Helana Brigman