I was recently away on a work trip to California. Long story short: I loved it, I learned a lot, and now I’m pining for luxury. None of that matters, and the only luxury I’m getting is this Mardi Gras King Cake. It was inspired after seeing a guy lug a three foot box onto the plane on the last leg of my trip home. Homeboy was wrestling with that box and his carry-on onto one of those puddle-jumpers of a plane. I’m over there in the waiting area, like, “It’s that good, bro?” Apparently so.
Never Had One, Yet I Make Them All the Time
Obviously, I don’t have friends from Louisiana who love me, because I’ve never tasted an authentic King Cake. That said, I have (unwittingly) made it before…just not for Mardi Gras. I don’t do anything for Mardi Gras, to be honest. This year, I decided I’d change all of that and try my hand at spinning my brioche recipe to create my version of King Cake.
For the “cake”, which is actually an enriched yeast bread, you’ll need whole milk, bread flour, yeast, butter (save the wrappers!), sugar, salt, cardamom and eggs. My version is a twisted loaf that is filled with a cinnamon-sugar mixture and a cream cheese filling! No, there’s no baby in here. What’s the point? I mean, we’re just going to throw it away. The glaze is a simple vanilla glaze and topped with the perfect Mardi Gras-esque sprinkles!
What Exactly is King Cake? Why is it Served for Mardi Gras?
The answer is: it’s bread. More bread than cake, so it really should be called “King Bread”. But, who am I to mess with tradition? The interesting this about King (or King’s) Cake is that it isn’t just served during Mardi Gras; nor is it a Louisiana/NOLA thing. Latinos serve their version of King Cake for Dia de Los Reyes (or Three King’s Day). The French (and other Europeans) have a version of it called Galette des Rois, too. The French version, though, is more pastry than bread, and it’s typically filled with an almond paste filling.
But why bread (cake)? My best guess is that it represents the Bread of Life, AKA Jesus; the reason for the season of Epiphany, Lent (which Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, ushers in), and Easter. That’s my theory, at least. The baby (or bean), which is hidden in the King Cake is also symbolic of the Christ child. The finder of the trinket is “King” of the celebration and is accorded all honors as such. Hence, the reason I don’t include it. One, it’s a choking hazard. Two, ain’t no royalty in this house. Do what you’re told and enjoy the cake.
Making the Sponge
This recipe is very similar to my brioche with a few variations. Like my brioche, which you can find here, you’ll need to start with a sponge (or starter).
To make the sponge, heat the whole milk in a one quart saucepan until you see steam rising off of its surface. Remove the pan from the stove and the milk to cool for five minutes. This scalding of the milk will increase its temperature, which- when added to the yeast- activates the yeast you’re using to leaven the dough. Add the warmed milk to the active dry yeast that you have in a mixing bowl. Don’t add the milk to the yeast as soon as you take it off of the stove! Let it cool for those five minutes, or its heat may kill the yeast.
A Note About Yeast
I received a comment on my brioche post asking why a reader’s loaves tasted “yeasty”. Part of the reason was the type of yeast the reader used. When making yeast breads, you have to use the yeast called for in the original recipe. The author of the recipe tested and developed it using that particular yeast. Any variations could change the result.
There are a couple of reasons for that, but the main reason is: not all yeasts work the same way. In this recipe, which calls for a longer rise, for example, you can’t use an instant yeast. Part of the reason you can’t is because instant yeast is stronger than active dry, so you used the called-for amount of yeast, it would taste overwhelmingly of yeast. Instant yeast also works faster than active dry, so it won’t translate to a recipe that calls for a one hour rise as this recipe does.
Back to the Sponge
Add the bread flour to your milk-yeast mixture and stir everything together to create a thick dough. Cover the mixing bowl with a clean kitchen towel and allow it to ferment for thirty minutes.
Develop the Sweet Dough
Once your sponge has fermented for a half-hour, cream together the room temperature unsalted butter and the granulated sugar. Use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer to beat the two together on medium-high speed until it looks pale yellow (almost white). As always, be sure to scrape down the mixing bowl a few times during the process, this should take about five minutes.
Add the room temperature eggs to the bowl and mix them in on medium speed. The mixture will end up looking curdled- that’s okay. It’ll come together in the end.
Add your starter to the bowl and blend for two or three minutes, or until the mixture looks balanced.
Switch to a dough hook- or get ready to get your hands dirty- and add the ground cardamom and the flour to the bowl. Begin with two cups of flour, then gradually add the remaining cup. Humidity will determine if you will use all, some, or more of the flour.
Knead the dough for ten minutes on second speed (or with your hands), until the dough feels supple, elastic, and is no longer sticky.
Once the dough has been kneaded, remove it from the bowl. Grease the bowl with your reserved butter wrappers. Return the dough to the bowl and flip it over. This greases the surface of the dough and helps prevent a skin from forming. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise in a warm area for one hour.
Retard the Dough
Once the dough has risen, you’re best served by retarding the dough. Retarding the dough is a baking term which means slowing down the fermentation process. It’s fancy talk for, “I started this recipe too late and can’t finish it right now.” HA! Not really, but sometimes. Retarding allows the bread to develop a great flavor without its continuing to proof (or rise), which could cause it to collapse and bake poorly. To retard the dough, which is necessary because it firms up that butter and makes the next step easier; just cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Chill for three hours, or overnight.
Prepare the Fillings
I love this bread filled with both cream cheese and cinnamon. Once I twist them together, it’s like eating a cream cheese-frosted cinnamon roll.
To make the cream cheese filling, juice half of a lemon using your citrus juicer. In a mixing bowl, blend together the room temperature cream cheese (an eight ounce package) and the powdered sugar.
Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, an egg, and a pinch of salt to the bowl, and blend until smooth. This filling will make more than you’ll need to fill the bread, but you can double the bread recipe and make two cakes if you prefer. This cream cheese filling can also be scooped into the center of your favorite muffins and baked.
The cinnamon-sugar filling is easy- combine a cup of dark brown sugar and a tablespoon of ground cinnamon together in a separate bowl. Set both fillings to the side until your dough is ready to roll.
Roll and Fill the Dough
After your dough has retarded, bring it to just colder than room temperature by setting it on the countertop a half-hour before you want to roll it out. Taking the chill off of it will help it roll out easier. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Exact measurements aren’t a must, just aim for a big rectangle (about twenty by ten inches).
Spread the cinnamon-sugar mixture onto the surface of the dough, leaving a one inch margin on the long side closest to you. I start with the cinnamon-sugar because it’s easier and less messy. Begin rolling the dough on the long side farthest from you. Roll towards yourself making sure your roll is tight and uniform.
When you get to the uncovered margin, rock the roll firmly to seal the dough to the roll. Use your fingers to pinch the roll closed.
Fold the ends over (to prevent the sugar from coming out) and roll it between your hands and the counter to stretch it out to about thirty inches. You want to make it long enough to form it into a circle later.
Use a rubber spatula, or an offset spatula, to spread the cream cheese filling out on a rectangle of dough (rolled the same way as before). Remember to leave the one inch margin for sealing! Roll, pinch, and stretch the same way you did with the first roll. This one will be looser. Try not to puncture the dough or the filling will ooze out.
Form the Wreath of Dough
Pinch together one end of the rolls of dough to join them. Carefully, twist the two rolls of dough together until you get to the opposite ends.
Form the twisted rope into a wreath and transfer it to an inverted sheet pan that’s been lined with parchment paper. Don’t worry about sealing the ends of the circle right now, just overlap them.
Cover the wreath with a kitchen towel and allow it to rise for thirty minutes in a warm area of your kitchen. In the meantime, begin heating your oven to three hundred fifty degrees.
Once the dough has risen, brush egg wash where the ends of dough overlap and pinch them together to seal the ring. Brush the rest of the dough with the egg wash. This will give your baked loaf a beautiful color.
Bake the loaf for thirty minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. You may have to rotate your pan half-way through baking to ensure it browns evenly.
Prepare the Glaze
While you can flavor this glaze anyway you want, I’m going with vanilla. If you want to switch flavors, just use a different flavor of extract.
Combine the light corn syrup with powdered sugar and vanilla extract in a saucepan. Add hot water to thin the glaze slightly. If you want a thin glaze, heat the mixture over low heat until it is runny. I prefer my glaze to be thick so I’m going to leave it un-heated- the consistency of molasses. You can make the glaze a few days in advance.
Once your King Cake has finished baking, remove the pan from the oven and allow the bread to cool completely. Use a small ladle to spoon the glaze onto the surface of the King Cake.
Decorate with a generous amount of sprinkles, or you can skip the sprinkles and leave it glazed. Or, you can tint the glaze green (faith), purple (justice), and gold (power), and decorate it in the colors of Mardi Gras!
Serve and Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!
That’s Cajun for, “Let’s eat a lot of Marta’s Mardi Gras King Cake because she’s such an amazing person!” Not really, but it’s my blog, so I do what I want.
This Mardi Gras King Cake is great for dessert, coffee, or breakfast. I know because I had it for all three. It’s best enjoyed a day or two after baking. Three days tops.
Be sure to enjoy it with your friends and family. If you absolutely must include your little baby, do so after you’ve baked and cooled the cake. Pop it into the cake after cooling and before glazing and decorating. You can also just put it under the loaf somewhere.
Cut, serve, and enjoy your Mardi Gras-on-a-plate with a mug of chicory coffee or a café au lait (my favorite).
Pin this and get to baking so it’s ready in time for Mardi Gras! Share this post with your friends and enjoy!
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Mardi Gras King Cake
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2 cups bread flour
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature (wrappers reserved)
- 1/2 cup+ 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 3 cups bread flour, separated
Cream Cheese Filling
- 1 ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- pinch kosher salt
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon cold water
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- hot water, to thin as desired
- colored sanding sugar
- chocolate shavings
Begin the Sponge
- In a 1 quart sauce pan, bring the milk to steam over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the stove and the milk to cool for 5 minutes.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the warmed milk, yeast, and the first measurement of bread flour to create a thick dough.
- Cover the mixing bowl with a clean kitchen towel and place it in a warm area of your kitchen. Allow the sponge to ferment for 30 minutes.
Develop the Bread Dough
- After the sponge has finished fermenting, cream together the butter and the granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl using a hand mixer). Beat the two ingredients together on medium-high speed until it looks pale yellow and fluffy- about 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl twice during mixing.
- Add the eggs to the bowl and mix them in on medium speed. The mixture will end up looking curdled.
- Add your starter to the bowl and blend for 2-3 minutes, or until the mixture looks smooth.
- Switch to mixer's dough hook- or use your hands- and add the salt, ground cardamom and 2 cups of the second measurement of flour to the bowl. Knead the dough on the second speed until the dough comes together. Gradually add the remaining cup of flour to the bowl and continue kneading for 10 minutes. When finished the dough should feel supple, elastic, and no longer sticky.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and lightly grease the bowl with your reserved butter wrappers. Return the dough to the bowl and flip it over to coat the surface of the dough in fat. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise in a warm area for 1 hour.
Retard the Dough for Easier Handling
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate, anywhere from 3-24 hours. This step is optional, but recommended for easier handling of the soft dough.
Prepare the Fillings
- In a mixing bowl, blend together the cream cheese and powdered sugar on low speed until smooth.
- Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, egg, and salt to the bowl, and blend, once more, until smooth. Set the filling aside.
- In a separate bowl, combine the dark brown sugar and the ground cinnamon together. Set this to the side as well until your dough is ready to roll and fill the dough.
Roll Out and Fill the Dough
- Set the bowl of dough onto the countertop a 1/2 hour prior to rolling it out. This makes rolling it out easier.
- Lightly flour your work surface with bread (or all-purpose flour). Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a big rectangle (about 20"x10" inches).
- Spread enough of the cinnamon-sugar mixture onto the surface of the dough to cover it- leaving a 1" margin on the long side closest to you.
- Roll the dough into a log-shape beginning with the long side farthest from you. Roll towards yourself making sure your roll is tight and uniform. When you get to the uncovered margin, rock the roll firmly to seal the dough to the roll. Use your fingers to pinch the roll closed. Fold the ends over (to prevent the sugar from coming out) and roll it between your hands and the counter to stretch it out to about 30".
- Use an offset spatula to spread the cream cheese filling out on a rectangle of dough (rolled the same way as before). Remember to leave the margin for sealing! Roll, pinch, and stretch the same way you did with the first roll. This roll will be looser than the previous roll because of the filling. Try not to puncture the dough or the filling will ooze out.
- To form the wreath of dough: pinch together each end of the rolls of dough to join them.
- Twist the two rolls of dough together until you get to the opposite ends. Form the twisted rope into a wreath and transfer it to an inverted sheet pan that's been lined with parchment paper.
- Cover the wreath with a kitchen towel and allow it to rise for 30 minutes in a warm area of your kitchen.
Brush and Bake
- Pre-heat your oven to 350°F. Make the egg wash by whisking together the egg and cold water until smooth.
- Once the dough has risen, brush egg wash where the ends of dough overlap and pinch them together to seal the ring. Brush the rest of the dough with the egg wash. This will give your baked loaf a beautiful color.
- Bake the loaf for 30 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped (rotate your pan half-way through baking to ensure it browns evenly).
Prepare the Vanilla Glaze
- Combine the powdered sugar, light corn syrup, and the vanilla extract in a saucepan, or bowl.
- Add hot water (a teaspoon at a time) to thin the glaze slightly. If you prefer a thin glaze, heat the mixture over low heat until it is runny. If you want a thicker glaze prefer my glaze leave it un-heated. A thick glaze should have the consistency of molasses.
Cool and Decorate the King Cake
- Once the King Cake has finished baking, remove the pan from the oven and allow the bread to cool completely.
- Use a small ladle to spoon the glaze onto the surface of the King Cake.
- Decorate with a generous amount of sprinkles, sanding sugar, or chocolate shavings.
- Slice and serve. The King Cake is best enjoyed a day or two after baking.
- You can make the glaze a few days in advance.
- Flavor the glaze with other extracts if you prefer.
- Tint the glaze green (faith), purple (justice), and gold (power), and decorate it in the colors of Mardi Gras
- Freeze your baked King Cake for up to two months. Wrap well in plastic wrap after cooling prior to freezing.