King Cake is a Mardi Gras sweet bread filled with a variety of sweet fillings like cream cheese or a cinnamon-sugar blend. In New Orleans, Louisiana and most of the other Gulf States, it’s not Mardi Gras unless a king cake graces the table.
I’ve updated this post in January 2022 with prettier pictures and more concise instructions. The cream cheese recipe is now made with powdered sugar to reduce the ooze factor.
What Is a King Cake?
King cake is a sweet bread that’s filled with a plethora of fillings. It’s very similar to cinnamon rolls or coffee cake, but much fancier. King Cake is more bread than a cake, so it really should be called “King Bread.” But, who am I to mess with tradition?
The interesting thing about King Cake is that it isn’t just served for Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. It also isn’t just a Louisiana/Mississippi creation. 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.
These countries and cultures have one thing in common when it comes to their King’s Cakes: the time of year when it is served. From Epiphany (January 6th) to the start of the Lenten season, this cake is often served to determine the “king” of the festivities. Mardi Gras season, of course, precedes Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Basically, everyone indulges in food, alcohol, and general bon temps (good times) before the holy season begins.
Tradition dictates that whoever finds the Christ child trinket is the “King” of the carnival season and is accorded all honors as such. They also have to provide the next king cake the following year.
I don’t include plastic babies in my king’s cake. One, it’s a choking hazard. Two, I’m the only royalty in this house, so we don’t need to jockey for anything. So, while this isn’t a traditional king cake because it lacks a toy baby, it’s still
What Do I Need to Make King Cake?
To make the king cake, you need sugar, bread flour, butter (save the wrappers), whole milk, active dry yeast, eggs, salt, and cardamom (or cinnamon).
This version contains a cinnamon-sugar and cream cheese filling! You can make both fillings and have a two-fer King Cake or just go with one filling. We’ll get to those, as well as the vanilla glaze, later.
You can add a small plastic baby to represent the baby Jesus if you want. Remember it’s may be a choking hazard, though.
How Do I Make a Bakery-Style King Cake?
This recipe is very similar to my brioche with just a few variations. Like my brioche, which you can find here, you’ll need to start with a sponge (or starter). Sponges, or starters, give your yeasted dough more depth of flavor, which is why bakery king cakes taste different than homemade. Even just a few minutes of pre-fermentation will give your bread a more complex flavor.
To make the sponge, heat the whole milk to 110°F (43°C). You can heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove; it doesn’t matter. After you heat the milk, combine it, the active dry yeast, a portion of the bread flour, and some of the sugar in a large bowl. Don’t add the milk to the yeast as soon as you remove it from its heat source unless it’s between 105°F-110°F! Milk that’s too hot will kill the yeast. If the milk is hotter than 110°F, just let it cool for 5 minutes, or until a few drops on the inside of your wrist feels slightly warm.
Finishing Making the Sponge
Mix the sponge to create a thick paste, then cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or a piece of plastic wrap. Put the bowl in a warm, draft-free area in the kitchen and let it do its thing for 30 minutes. The sponge will begin fermenting and rising, which will give our king cake a fluffier texture and a more flavorful taste.
After a half-hour, you can continue making the bread or transfer the starter to a jar and refrigerate it for 24 hours. Just be sure to allow it to come to room temperature before using it in the king cake dough, if you do refrigerate it.
How Do I Make the Dough for King Cake?
To proceed with the king cake dough, add the remaining sugar and room temperature butter to the bowl of a stand mixer or- if you’re using an electric hand mixer– to a large mixing bowl. Use the paddle attachment to cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy at medium speed. This usually takes 6-7 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle twice during the creaming process. Next, add the room temperature eggs to the mixture. Usually, I want you to add the eggs one at a time to develop a balanced batter. But, since I know that the number of eggs in this recipe will “break” that balance, there’s no point in drawing out the process. So, dump all of the eggs into the bowl and blend them in for 4 minutes at low speed.
Take note of what the egg-butter mixture looks like at this point. It resembles curdled cream. That’s okay. Add all of the room temperature sponge that you made earlier to the bowl.
How Long Do I Have to Mix the King Cake Dough?
Blend the sponge into the egg-butter mixture until it smoothes out. Properly mixed, it should resemble pancake batter.
Switch to the dough hook attachment- or get ready to get your hands dirty- and add the ground cardamom, kosher salt, and 3 cups of the bread flour to the bowl.
Knead the dough on second speed (or with your hands) for 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining cup of bread flour as needed. Humidity will determine if you use all, some, or more than the remaining quantity of flour. If the dough is super-sticky, you need to add more flour. Your hands will tell you that, especially if you’re kneading the dough by hand. If you are kneading the dough in the mixer, pay attention to how it is behaving at the bottom of the bowl. A dough that is too wet will cling to the bottom of the bowl instead of wrapping itself around the dough hook. If yours is doing that, add more flour. On the other hand, if the dough looks dry or really stiff, sprinkle a tablespoon of water in there to moisten it.
It’s better to add too little flour than to overdo it and try to bring it back, so be conservative. Knead the dough for a total of 10 minutes.
When finished, the dough will feel supple, soft, and feel like it wants to stick to your hands but won’t when you release it.
How Long Does the Dough Have to Rise?
Once the dough is mixed, remove it from the bowl. Take those butter wrappers I told you to hang on to and use them to grease the bowl. Return the dough to the bowl and flip it over. This step oils the surface of the dough and helps prevent skin from forming on its surface.
Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise in a warm area for one hour. I often put my bowl of rising dough in a microwave or the oven since both are controlled environments, free of drafts.
Why Is the Dough So Sticky?
When it comes to working with enriched dough, it’s best practice to retard the dough.
Enriched dough, with its high amounts of butter, wants to melt. That’s fantastic when it happens in the baked product because that translates to soft, delicious bread. Unfortunately, between our body heat and the heat in our kitchen, it makes working with the dough more difficult. So, that’s where retarding comes in.
Retarding dough is a baking term that means slowing down the fermentation process. 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. It also firms up the butter in the dough and makes handling it in the next step easier.
Retarding the dough is simple: just cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Chill it anywhere from three hours to overnight.
While you don’t have to retard the dough, it does make the going easier.
How Do I Make the Fillings for the King Cake?
I love that this king cake is filled with both cream cheese and a cinnamon filling because, once I twist them together, it’s like eating a cream cheese-frosted cinnamon roll. If you’re a tad greedy like me, I strongly recommend you make both fillings, too. If you’re more reserved, you can stick to just one. Should you decide to do only one filling, double either the cinnamon sugar filling or the cream cheese.
I usually make the fillings while the dough is going through its first rise. Since I have an hour to spare, it just makes sense to get it out of the way. If you wait until the last minute, your dough is bound to overproof, which means it’ll likely fall during baking.
To make the cinnamon-sugar filling for the king cake, you need brown sugar, cinnamon, and room temperature unsalted butter.
Beat the brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter using your hand mixer for 3-4 minutes on med-high speed until light and fluffy. If you’re making the king cake right after proofing, just leave the cinnamon-sugar filling on the countertop. You can also cover the bowl and store the cinnamon-sugar mixture in the fridge for up to a week. You will need to allow it to come to room temperature before using it so that it’s soft enough to spread when you need to, though.
For the king cake’s cream cheese filling you need room temperature cream cheese, the zest of half a lemon, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract. You can even add the lemon juice from the zested lemon if you prefer.
Add these ingredients to a small mixing bowl.
Blend the ingredients together on med-low speed until smooth. If you’re not filling the cake immediately, cover and refrigerate for a week.
How do I assemble a King Cake?
After your dough has retarded, bring it to just a smidge 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. Alternatively, roll out the dough after the dough has risen for an hour, which means no chilling, and you’ve punched down the dough.
Use a knife or bench scraper to divide the dough into two equal pieces. Even if you’re only making one of the fillings, you still want to divide the dough so you can twist it later.
Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Aim for a rectangle that measures 26-inches by 16-inches.
Fill and Roll the Dough
Spread a thin layer of the cinnamon-sugar mixture onto the dough’s surface, leaving a one-inch margin on the long side.
Begin rolling the dough on the covered side and roll towards the side that has the uncovered margin. This is one of the times you don’t want to roll too tightly. I’ve made that mistake more times than I’m proud to admit. In this case, you want the dough to have some lax, so it doesn’t tear and rip as it gets twisted and goes through its second rise.
Once the log is rolled, pinch the seam side to the body of it to seal it closed. Roll it between your hands and the counter to stretch it out to about thirty inches. This will give you enough dough to twist later on. Now, roll the log so the seam is on the bottom and set it out of the way so you can roll the cream cheese log.
Roll out the second piece of dough to the same specs as the first. Spread the cream cheese filling evenly on top, but this time, leave a 1-inch margin on one long end and 1 1/2-inch margins on both of the short ends.
The cream cheese oozes more than the cinnamon-sugar because of its consistency, so the margins will help keep things neat.
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.
How Do I Form My King Cake?
Place the two dough logs perpendicular to one another on a silicone baking mat or a sheet of parchment paper. You’re going to form the king cake on the mat or paper before moving it to the pan. It just makes life easier.
Pinch together the ends of the two rolls to join them. Carefully twist the two rolls of dough together until you get to the opposite ends. Form the twisted rope into an oval shape or wreath and transfer the mat or paper it’s on to a sheet pan. 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 place in your kitchen. In the meantime, begin heating your oven to 350°F (177°C).
Once the dough has risen, brush egg wash where the ends meet and pinch them together to seal the ring. Brush the rest of the dough with the egg wash. Egg washes give baked bread a beautiful color. If your bread looks like it’s beginning to tear, it means it was rolled too tight. You can use a very sharp knife to cut the cinnamon log open to prevent it from ripping, or just bake it as is.
Bake the loaf for 30 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Because it’s a pretty sizable loaf of bread, you may have to rotate your pan halfway through baking to ensure it browns evenly.
What Kind of Glaze Goes On a King Cake?
A king cake often has a simple vanilla or almond-flavored glaze drizzled over it.
While you can flavor this glaze anyway you want, I prefer vanilla. To switch up the flavors, just use a different flavor of extract. All you need is powdered sugar, vanilla (or almond extract), light corn syrup (or honey), and enough hot water to reach your desired consistency.
Combine the light corn syrup, powdered sugar, vanilla extract and melted butter in a small bowl. Add enough 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 so that it has the consistency of molasses. You can make the glaze a few days in advance and store it, covered, at room temperature.
How Do You Decorate a King Cake?
Once your King Cake has finished baking, remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow the bread to cool completely. Carefully transfer the cooled cake to a wire rack (cooling rack).
Spoon the glaze onto the surface of the King Cake. If your glaze has thickened too much for it to pour, nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Give it a stir, and it should be fluid. If not, just stir in a few drops of hot water.
King cakes are decorated with the traditional colors of Mardi Gras are purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power). That’s usually accomplished with a generous amount of colored sanding sugar or sprinkles.
You can skip the sugar or sprinkles and just leave it glazed. Or, you can tint the glaze the Mardi Gras colors and decorate it that way!
How Do I Serve King Cake?
If you absolutely must include a little baby, do so after you’ve baked and cooled the cake. Set the baby in the bottom of the cake after cooling and before glazing and decorating.
This Mardi Gras King Cake is great for dessert, coffee, or breakfast. I’ve eaten for all three; that’s how I know.
Slice and serve the king cake as you would a coffee or regular cake. You can also treat it like a giant cinnamon roll and pull it apart with your hands.
I eat my slice of cake with a mug of chicory coffee. I prefer Community Coffee since they’re a Louisiana brand. They even have a King Cake Flavor Blend!
How Do I Store Leftovers?
To store leftovers, wrap the king cake tightly in plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container. Avoid storing the king cake in the fridge because the cold air will make it go stale faster.
Reheat leftover slices in the microwave for 15 seconds to give them a just-baked flavor.
King cake tastes best within a day or two of baking, but no longer than three days.
Can I Freeze King Cake?
Freeze king cake before frosting it with the glaze.
Allow the cake to cool completely before wrapping it in a double layer of plastic wrap. Wrap the cake in a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil before freezing it for up to 2 months.
Thaw the frozen king cake at room temperature, then frost and decorate.
Pin this Kings Cake recipe to your breads board for your upcoming Mardi Gras celebration and you’ll be all set to let the good times roll! And don’t forget to let me know what you think, then share this post with your friends!
King Cake with Cinnamon and Cream Cheese Fillingat Sense & Edibility
- stand mixer or hand mixer
- pastry brush
- rolling pin
For the Enriched Bread Dough
- 1 cup (250 milliliters) whole milk warmed to 110°F (43°C)
- 4 1/4 teaspoons (16 grams or 2 packets) active dry yeast
- 6-6 1/2 cups (800-845 grams) bread flour separated
- 1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter room temperature (save the wrappers)
- 1/2 cup (115 grams) granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon
- 3 large eggs room temperature
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground cardamom optional
- 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
- 1 cup (240 grams), packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter room temperature
- 1 tablespoon (6 grams) ground cinnamon
Cream Cheese Filling
- 8 ounces (226 grams) cream cheese room temperature
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) powdered sugar sifted
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest from 1/2 a large lemon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon water
- 3 cups powdered sugar sifted
- 3 tablespoons (62 grams) light corn syrup or honey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) unsalted butter melted (optional)
- hot water as needed to thin
- colored sanding sugar
- chocolate shavings
- plastic baby or dried bean
Mix the Sponge
- Place the bowl in a warm, draft-free area in the kitchen for 30 minutes. The sponge will begin fermenting and rising during this period.After 30 minutes, you can continue with the making of the bread or transfer the starter to a jar and refrigerate it for 24 hours*.
Make the Bread Dough
- Add the remaining sugar and the butter to the bowl of your stand mixer (fitted with the paddle attachment) or to a large mixing bowl if you're using an electric hand mixer. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy on medium speed (#3 on a KitchenAid) or for 4 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle twice during the creaming process to ensure the mixture is creamed evenly.
- Add all of the eggs to the bowl and blend them into the sugar-butter mixture for 4 minutes at low speed (#1 on a KitchenAid). Scrape down the paddle and bowl twice during this step.The mixture will resemble curdled cream at this point. Add all of the room temperature sponge to the bowl.
- Blend the sponge into the egg-butter mixture on low speed (#1 on a KitchenAid) until the mixture looks smooth and thick, like pancake batter, or for 2 minutes.Scrape down the bowl and paddle, then switch to the dough hook. Add the ground cardamom, kosher salt, and 3 cups of the bread flour to the bowl. Or, if you're kneading by hand, place the 3 cups of flour onto a clean countertop and scrape the dough mixture into the center of the flour.
- Knead the dough on second speed (or with your hands) for 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining cup to 1 1/2 cups of bread flour as needed. Humidity will determine if you use all, some, or more than the remaining quantity of flour. If the dough is super-sticky, you need to add more flour. If you are kneading the dough in the mixer, pay attention to how it is behaving at the bottom of the bowl. A dough that is too wet will cling to the bottom of the bowl instead of wrapping itself around the dough hook. If yours is doing that, add more flour. On the other hand, if the dough looks dry or really stiff, sprinkle a tablespoon of water in there to moisten it. It's better to add too little flour than to overdo it and try to bring it back, so be conservative. Knead the dough for a total of 10 minutes. When finished, the dough will feel supple, soft, and feel like it wants to stick to your hands but won't when you release it.
Allow the Dough to Rise
- Once the dough is mixed, remove it from the bowl. Grease the bowl using the butter wrappers you saved earlier. Return the dough to the bowl and flip it over. This step oils the surface of the dough and helps prevent skin from forming on its surface.Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise in a warm, draft-free area of your kitchen for 1 hour.
Retard the Dough for Easier Handling (Optional)
- After the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough. To retard the dough (see details in post), cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Chill the dough for 3 hours or overnight to make it firm, and therefore easier, to handle.
Prepare the Cinnamon-Sugar Filling (while the dough is rising or up to a week ahead)
- In a small mixing bowl and using a hand mixer, beat the brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy or 3-4 minutes. If you're assembling the king cake right after it rises, just leave the cinnamon-sugar filling on the countertop. You can also cover the bowl and store the cinnamon-sugar mixture in the fridge for up to a week. It will need to come to room temperature before spreading.
Prepare the Cream Cheese Filling (up to a week ahead)
- Add the cream cheese, sifted powdered sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla extract to a mixing bowl. Blend the ingredients together on med-low speed until smooth. The cream cheese filling will not be super-sweet, so add sugar to your preference. Keep the cream cheese filling on the countertop if you're assembling the king cake right away. If not, cover and refrigerate for a week. Remember to allow it time to soften before spreading.
Assemble the King Cake
- If you have retarded your dough: allow it to warm to slightly colder than room temperature on the countertop. Taking the chill off of it will help it roll out easier. Use a knife or bench scraper to divide the dough into two equal pieces. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface. A rectangle that measures 26-inches by 16-inches is ideal.
- Spread a thin layer of the cinnamon-sugar mixture onto the dough's surface, leaving a one-inch margin on one of the long sides.Loosely roll the dough, beginning on the covered side, towards the side that has the uncovered margin. Once the log is rolled, pinch the dough's edge to its body of it to seal it. Roll the log between your hands and the counter to stretch it out to about thirty inches. Now, roll the log so the seam is on the bottom and set it out of the way so you can roll the cream cheese log.
- Roll out the second piece of dough to the same specs as the first. Spread the cream cheese filling evenly on top, but this time, leave a 1-inch margin on one long end and 1 1/2-inch margins on both of the short ends.Roll, pinch, and stretch the same way you did with the first roll. This one will feel softer. Pinch the ends of the cream cheese log to prevent the filling from oozing out.
- Place the two dough logs perpendicular to one another on a silicone baking mat or a sheet of parchment paper. Pinch together the ends of the two rolls 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 the mat or paper it's on to a sheet pan, overlapping the ends.
- Cover the wreath with a clean 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 350°F (177°C).
Make the Egg Wash
- Whisk together the egg yolk and water in a small mixing bowl. After the dough has risen, brush egg wash where the ends meet and pinch them together to seal the ring. Brush the rest of the dough with the egg wash.
Bake the King Cake
- If you see that the dough is beginning to tear, it means your logs were rolled too tightly. You can use a very sharp knife to cut open the top of the cinnamon logs, or just bake it as is. Bake the loaf for 30 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. You may have to rotate your pan halfway through baking to ensure it browns evenly.
Make the Vanilla Glaze (up to two days ahead)
- In a mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar, corn syrup (or honey), vanilla extract, and melted butter if you're using it. Add enough hot water to thin the glaze to your desired consistency.You can make the glaze a few days in advance and store it, covered, at room temperature.If your glaze thickens too much, nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Give it a stir, and it should be fluid. If not, just stir in a few drops of hot water.
Finish the King Cake
- Once the king cake is baked, remove the pan from the oven and allow the bread to cool completely.Spoon the glaze onto the surface of the king cake.
- Decorate with a generous amount of colored sanding sugar or sprinkles.You can also tint the glaze the Mardi Gras colors with gel food color and decorate it that way!
- Serve and enjoy your king cake!
- Wrap leftover king cake tightly in plastic wrap or transfer it to a sealed food storage container.
- Store at room temperature. Avoid storing the king cake in the fridge because the cold air will make it go stale faster.
- King cake tastes best within 3 days of baking.
- Reheat leftover slices in the microwave for 15 seconds to give them a just-baked flavor.
- Freeze the king cake before frosting it.
- Allow the cake to cool completely.
- Wrap the cake in a double layer of plastic wrap, followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
- Freeze the cake for up to 2 months.
- Thaw the frozen king cake at room temperature, before frosting and decorating as desired.
I make a King Cake every year for Mardi Gras. This is hands down the best one I have ever baked. Moist and delicious. Thank you for this wonderful recipe.
You’re welcome, Kathy!