How to make a king cake for Mardi Gras (and where to find a plastic baby)
Mardi Gras won't have its famous parades this year, but people are already ordering king cakes and decorating their houses.
Gambino’s is one of many New Orleans bakeries specializing in king cakes, which you can order to have shipped anywhere in the U.S. Stuffed Cajun Meat Market is one of several places in Austin you can buy king cakes locally, but what if you want to try your hand at making one?
I made a couple of king cakes over the weekend from an all-purpose recipe on All Recipes. I was surprised how easily the dough came together, and I loved an excuse to knead it until the gluten relaxed and the yeast, eggs and sugar started to work their magic.
Similar to brioche and challah, a king cake dough is enriched with eggs, but unlike challah, it has milk and butter. You can also toss in more or less sugar, depending on how sweet you'd like the bread.
I found out that king cakes started out as an unsweetened bread without any filling, but now you'll find king cakes filled with cinnamon-spiced brown sugar, cream cheese, pecans, raisins and even fruit pie fillings, like cherry or blueberry.
Back in the day, bakers would put a small dried bean or a pecan in the bread, poking a hole on the underside with their finger after it was finished baking.
If you got the bean or pecan, you were the king or queen for the day. (And you had to buy next year's cake.) Now, bakeries use plastic babies, one of many Mardi Gras trinkets stuffed into the bread and the one that caught on particularly well, says Judy Walker, author of "Cooking Up a Storm."
We already had a little plastic baby in the house because it came with a king cake cupcake from Crimson Creek BBQ, a food trailer off U.S. 290 West that sells desserts alongside its barbecue.
Black History Month: Where to catch cooking classes, virtual food events
Where to buy a king cake baby
If you need to buy a plastic baby for your homemade king cake, check out a party store, such as Party City, or a baking supply store, such as Make It Sweet in North Austin. You can, of course, find them online in varying sizes and styles.
What makes a king cake a king cake
One of the signature things that makes a king cake a king cake is the icing that glazes the top. Some people use buttercream or cream cheese-based icings, but this one relies on good ol' powdered sugar and milk.
As soon as you pour the icing on the cake, sprinkle immediately with brightly colored sugar (or sprinkles). Do not skip this decorating step, and be quick about it. Once the icing starts to dry, the sugar won't stick to it.
On one of the cakes I made, I used a richly colored icing tinted with a drop of food coloring gel, which created deep shades of purple, green and yellow. You can also make your own colored sugar by adding a few drops of food coloring directly in the sugar and mix well.
Some alternatives to consider are cream cheese icing (1 block of cream cheese, 1/2 stick butter, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1/4 cup milk and enough powdered sugar to thicken) and a cream cheese filling (1 block room temperature cream cheese, 1 cup powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg).
Make sure you roll out the cake to at least 16 inches wide so you have enough dough to make a complete circle. Ideally, it's wide enough to fit a 4-inch baking ring in the center. Use a metal jar lid or a ramekin if you don't have a ring, or you could use a free-form spiral instead.
This recipe doesn't call for an egg wash, but you could use one to give the outside a golden brown sheen. King cakes don't last forever, so if you aren't going to make use of two of them by giving some away, cut the recipe in half. You could also make smaller, individual-sized king cakes if you're hoping to drop off a springtime surprise to someone in quarantine.
Mardi Gras King Cake
King cakes are served at both Epiphany and Mardi Gras. Traditionally, the person who gets the slice with baby in it has to host the next party. This recipe makes two cakes, so one for you and one for your neighbor. You could also cut all the ingredients in half to make a smaller quantities of dough and filling.
— Addie Broyles
For the pastry:
1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
2 (0.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water (110 degrees)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
For the filling:
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1 cup melted butter
For the frosting:
2 cups powdered sugar
4 to 5 tablespoons milk
In a small pot over medium-high heat, scald the milk by heating it until a skin forms on the top (about 170 degrees). Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup of butter. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1 tablespoon of the white sugar. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the eggs. Stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. Beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. When risen, punch down and divide dough in half.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
To make the filling: Combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, flour and raisins, if using. Pour melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until crumbly.
Roll dough halves out into large rectangles (approximately 10-inch-by-16-inch or so). Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough and roll up each half tightly like a jelly roll, beginning at the wide side. Bring the ends of each roll together to form 2 oval shaped rings. Place each ring on a prepared cookie sheet. With scissors make cuts 1/3 of the way through the rings at 1 inch intervals. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Make sure the oven is hot and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Push the baby trinket into the bottom of the cake. Frost while warm and immediately decorate with sugar or sprinkles. Make sure whoever is eating it knows there's an object inside. (Or use something edible, like a pecan.)
— Adapted from a recipe on AllRecipes