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This traditional king cake is a New Orleans classic and is served in celebration of Mardi Gras. The cake is topped with a sweet glaze and festive sprinkles- but who will find the baby?!Jump to Recipe
New Orleans king cake recipe
Have you tried king cake? You are in for a treat! When my family moved from Boston to Pensacola, I was so excited to be a part of the southern tradition, Mardi Gras… but better yet, a king cake! I heard the hype, but let’s try it!
Pensacaola, Mobile AL, and New Orleans are all in a straight shot on the map. Each city celebrates Mardi Gras by lining the streets with people and floats. Be careful, you might get some beads or moon pies chucked at your head!
What is Mardi Gras?
‘Mardi Gras’ is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’ which is traditionally celebrated within the Christian religion by eating the last fatty foods on Tuesday night before fasting for Lenten season on which starts Ash Wednesday (the following day).
While Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout many cultures like Italy, Germany, Cherz Republic, etc. it is a staple in American southern culture.
New Orleans’ popular French Quarter is lined with parade floats, people, colorful costumes, and lots and lots of beads and candies. Beads are tossed onto people’s heads, moon pies are thrown to waving kids, and people dance in the streets.
So where does a king cake fit into Mardi Gras? Let’s get into it!
What is a king cake
A king cake, despite its name, is more like a braided sweet bread. First, the dough is made, then braided, then a plastic baby is placed randomly in the cake. Wait, a baby!? Yep, and it’s such a fun twist! Whoever finds the plastic baby in their slice has to buy the next year’s king cake or host the nest Mardi Gras party. Other traditions believe finding the plastic baby means prosperity and good luck.
The king cake is topped with a creamy white glaze and sprinkled with festive green, gold, and purple sprinkles. The cake is sweet, fluffy, and totally worth the effort!
There are a variety of different flavors like cream cheese stuffed, raspberry, and even a coffee cake king cake. Each one is super delicious and brings a fun, festive dessert to your Mardi Gras table.
King cake symbolism
As mentioned, the king cake is topped with gold, green, and purple sprinkles, but why? Turns out, there is meaning behind the king cake and it’s traditional Mardi Gras themed colors!
Gold, green, and purple are the official colors of Mardi Gras. Rex, a leading Mardi Gras parade organizer, declared these colors to be official in 1892. The colors are said to represent justice, faith, and power.
The tiny plastic baby hidden in the king cake has a few meanings. Since Mardi Gras has deep religious roots, the plastic baby is thought to represent baby Jesus. This makes sense since this holiday is Christain based… but this story takes a turn.
The plastic baby in the king cake idea originated in New Orleans bakery, McKenzies. The late owner decided to place a plastic baby in the cake because it wouldn’t get lost like a large bean or nut. This fun idea took off and most king cakes are now baked with the little baby!
King cake ingredients
- Flour– All purpose flour is perfect for this recipe!
- Sugar– White granulated sugar is used to make the cinnamon sugar filling and to sweeten the bread.
- Yeast– Quick rise yeast helps the bread rise in record time.
- Orange juice– Orange juice gives the king cake a floral, light, delicate flavor- it’s phenomenal!
- Lemon zest– A pinch of lemon zest helps add a light and floral flavor.
- Eggs– Eggs act as a binding agent in the bread.
- Butter– Salted butter adds a depth of flavor to this king cake recipe.
- Milk– Warm milk and warm water are combined with the yeast and a dash of sugar to help the yeast bloom.
- Spices– Cinnamon and nutmeg give this Mardi Gras cake a delicious coffee cake flavor.
- Confectioners sugar– The icing on top of the kings cake is a simple glaze made of sugar, water, and vanilla extract.
- Vanilla extract– A dash of vanilla adds a whole lot of flava to the icing glaze!
- Sprinkles– Gold, green, and purple sprinkles gives this king cake a beautiful New Orleans vibe!
- Plastic baby– A small plastic baby is hidden in the king cake, which makes it even more fun to eat!
This king cake recipe takes a couple of hours to make. The dough will rise over 1 hour in the fridge, then it is shaped and baked for 40-45 minutes. There is a lot of waiting time for this recipe, but trust me, the flavor is worth the wait!
Use extra flour
The king cake dough can be sticky, so don’t be afraid to flour your work surface, hands, and rolling pin. Putting flour on the rolling pin will help prevent the dough from sticking and peeling off.
Want more flavor?
You can fine-tune the flavor of this king cake by placing the uncooked king cake dough in the fridge overnight. Much like my French bread rolls, you can really amp up the flavor by allowing the dough to develop in the fridge overnight. Simply pull the dough out of the fridge 30 minutes before assembling the king cake.
How to make a Mardi Gras king cake
To make the dough
- In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water and milk, then add the yeast. Stir the mixture. Add the orange juice and eggs, then mix until well combined.
- In a separate bowl, combine the 5 cups flour (use more if the dough is too sticky), sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Stir in the lemon zest. Create a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour in the yeast mixture. Use a spoon to mix the wet and dry ingredients until a dough forms. Add in the butter one tablespoon at a time, incorporating it fully before adding the next.
- Flour your work surface, then dump the dough out and kneed for 5-8 minutes. Oil a large bowl, then place the dough ball in the bowl and roll it so all of the dough is covered. Place a damp towel over the top of the bowl, and place the bowl in the fridge for 1 hour.
To make the cinnamon filling
- Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
To assemble the king cake
- Lay a piece of parchment paper on your work surface, then lightly flour it. Dump the dough onto the parchment paper.
- Flour the rolling pin, then roll the dough into a 12″ X 20″ rectangle. Sprinkle the dough with the cinnamon sugar, keeping a 1″ edge clear around the king cake.
- Starting from the long end near you, roll the dough into itself to make a long cylinder shape. Bring the top and bottom edges of the cake together to form an oval shape. Lightly crimp the edges into each other. Transfer the parchment paper and king cake to a baking sheet.
To bake the king cake
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, then place the king cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes. Use a thermometer to check to make sure the cake reads 190 degrees F.
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool for 20 minutes.
- Combine the confectioner’s sugar, water, and vanilla extract in a bowl. Stir until a glaze forms.
- Drizzle the glaze all over the slightly warm cake. Sprinkle the colored sugar sprinkle all over the cake.
- Cut the king cake into slices and serve! Mangia!
How to store
You can wrap the king cake in plastic wrap and keep it on the counter for up to 4 days.
To keep a king cake fresh for longer, place it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
Alternatively, a king cake can be frozen for up to three months. Make sure you place it in an airtight container! When ready to eat, remove it from the container, place it on a plate, and allow it to come to room temperature.
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This traditional king cake is a New Orleans classic and is served in celebration of Mardi Gras. The cake is topped with a sweet glaze and festive sprinkles- but who will find the baby?!
- 5-5 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup + 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp grated lemon zest
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1 packet of rapid rise yeast
- 1/2 cup milk warmed to 120 degrees (microwave for 25 seconds)
- 3/4 cup orange juice
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup butter cubed, room temperature
- plastic baby
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1 cup confectioner's sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2-3 tbsp water
Decorative sugar sprinkles
- 4 tbsp green sprinkles
- 4 tbsp gold sprinkles
- 4 tbsp purple sprinkles
Combine and whisk 5 cups of flour, sugar, salt, lemon zest, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine the warm milk, yeast, and orange juice. Create a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour the yeast mixture in the center.
Stir the mixture until it creates a shaggy dough. Add one tablespoon of butter at a time, making sure to full incorporate it before adding the next. Add a tablespoon of flour at a time if the dough is too wet, up to 1/2 cup.
Lightly oil a bowl, then place the dough ball in the bowl. Drape a damp kitchen towel over the bowl, then place the bowl in the fridge for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dump the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Flour your rolling pin, then stretch the dough into a 12X20 inch rectangle.
Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, then sprinkle the sugar mixture on the dough, keeping the 1 inch edge of the dough clear.
Grab the long edge near you, then roll the dough into itself so it is rolled into a cylinder shape. Place the plastic baby randomly in the dough about mid way through rolling it.
Place the dough on a parchment paper lined baking sheet seam side down. Join the ends of the dough together, Wet your fingers and pinch the edges togeher.
Place the king cake in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 40 minutes.
Remove the king cake from the oven and allow it to cool for 30 minutes. Combine the confectioner's sugar, vanilla extract, and water. Mix until it is a glaze.
Glaze the king cake with the icing using a spoon, then decorate the cake with the green, gold, and purple spinkles. Cut, serve, mangia!
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