Mardi Gras King Cake: A true feel-good dessert

Ah, Mardi Gras, that most kaleidoscopic of celebrations. A festival of color, music, and revelry, a pageant of joyful and often outrageous goodwill towards your fellow man. What is it about this particular event that brings people together?

There are few other originally regional celebrations that have become so universally embraced as Mardi Gras. In previous blog posts we’ve talked about the history and origins of the festival, and its more family-oriented aspects as well. But today I’ve been thinking about why so many of us choose to don bright shirts and dresses and festoon ourselves in beads, even though we’re miles away both in distance and background. And I think I have an answer…

I think it’s smiling, laughter, and abandon. Sure, for some folks it may be the copious free-flowing libations; and for others, the wardrobe (or lack of same) associated with parts of the festival, but I really think the biggest reason this day grabs us and urges us on is the sheer joy it evokes.

Mardi Gras says, “Come dance with me!” Mardi Gras says, “Laugh, whoop, and holler! See the color, feel the music, catch the gold, LIVE! Tomorrow we shall be pious, but today we embrace life.”

Yes, that, my friends, is why I think we love Mardi Gras; why we seize it, and why we make King Cake in the cold gray of February. To be happy, to feel alive.

Purple, green, and gold beads don't hold a candle to this colorful (and more importantly, delicious) tender, buttery King Cake: a treat truly worthy of the celebration of Mardi Gras. Click To Tweet

Come, bake a Mardi Gras King Cake with me. Laissez le flux de vie coloré douce!

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This rich, sweet dough is best mixed up by machine, so put the following into your mixer bowl or bread machine bucket:

1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
3 1/2 cups (14 3/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dried milk
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil, or 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

Mix with the paddle until your dough begins to come together (bottom left photo). Switch to the dough hook and knead for 4 to 5 minutes, until you have a very soft, smooth, and pliable dough.

Cover and allow the dough to rise for about an hour. Rich doughs tend to get full and puffy, but don’t always double in size.

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Turn the risen dough out onto a large, lightly greased work surface. Pat and roll it out to about 6″ x 24″. If you do happen to roll your rectangle a bit too large, don’t worry about trying to shrink it back down. An inch or so over won’t ruin your final cake.

Give your mixing bowl a quick swipe to clean it, and mix together the following:

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, well softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon Instant Clearjel OR 3 tablespoons King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil

Blend on medium-high speed until smooth and creamy.

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Spread the filling over the rolled dough, leaving about 1/2″ border all around.

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Roll as you would for cinnamon buns, beginning with a long side. Pinch the seam to prevent your filling leaking out.

Now you’re going to form this long log into a ring. To help seal the ring together, press one end flat with the heel of your hand. This thinner flap can be laid over the other end of the ring, closing the gap without much bulk.

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Don’t fret about small holes or rips in the dough. They don’t tend to create gaping holes, as the dough is very supple. Just try to position them on the underside of the ring, if you can.

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Place the ring on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover it with lightly greased plastic, and set it aside to rise for 1 hour.

If your house is chilly, try placing the tray in the oven with just the light on. The bulb will provide warmth, and the oven’s insulation will keep the heat in. DON’T turn the oven on; that will be too much heat, and your yeast will begin to die.

Be sure to take the pans out of the oven while you preheat the oven to 350°F (about 40 minutes into the rise time). Remove the plastic wrap before baking.

Whisk the reserved egg white with 1 tablespoon water, and brush it over the risen cake.

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Bake the cake for 20 minutes. Gently tent a sheet of foil over the cake, and bake for another 30 minutes, or until it’s very golden brown.

You can see a small seam where the flattened end of the dough was placed. Have no fear, though; the sweet icing will cover it, and no one will be the wiser.

Allow the baked cake to cool for about 20 to 30 minutes before icing.

To make the icing, blend together the following:

2 cups confectioners’ sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons + 1 to 2 teaspoons milk, enough to make a thick but pourable icing

I like to get hands-on, scooping and spreading the thick icing with my fingers. I saw this once on TV and found it fascinating. You can use a spreader or spatula, if you prefer.

Top the still-wet icing with sparkling sugars in purple, green, and gold, standing for justice, faith, and power.

If you’re inserting a prize into the cake, such as a plastic baby or coins, do that before you start spreading glaze, lest you end up with a sticky mess. Be sure to tell your guests before someone dives in and eats your tokens! Tradition says whoever finds the prize must provide the King Cake for the next year’s party.

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Is this the magical slice that holds my prize? The sugar seems to sparkle like the twinkle in a jester’s eye. It reminds us to seek out the sparkle and shine in life at least one day out of the year. Happy Mardi Gras!

Please bake, rate, and review our recipe for Mardi Gras King Cake.

Print just the recipe.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Shelly

    I don’t see the oven temperature in the recipe, just instructions to take the rising cake out at 40 minutes to preheat the oven. Is it 350 degrees?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel

      Yes, Shelly, 350°F is the correct temperature. Thanks for calling this omission to our attention – I’m on it! 🙂 PJH

  2. tif57t14818

    This is going to be a long and maybe odd question(s): I’m gluten free and have wanted to make this King Cake for a long time but haven’t done it yet and this seems to be a good forum for my question(s). Anyway, I make Sourdough Bread Boules just about every day and they are gluten free & phytic acid free only because I ferment the dough in the refrigerator a minimum of 48 hrs and sometimes longer (which seems to not cause the dough to develop a more “sourdough” flavor which is okay with me). I can eat this fermented sourdough easily without any flare-up problems. I learned about fermenting the dough on the internet from a Lebanese baker in California. If I make this dough recipe for the King Cake, could I ferment the dough in a lightly oiled bowl in the refrigerator the 48 hrs I mentioned above and still have the recipe work? As well, for the filling could I substitute the KAF GF flour for the small amount of regular flour required? I’ve thought long and hard on these requirements for my GF diet and baking and think that they could possibly work as it (48 hr dough fermentation) seems to work well for Angel Biscuits and as well pastry dough that I also ferment 48 hrs before forming and baking with no gluten digestive problems. What do you think? Should I just go for it? Was additionally considering making a pound cake recipe I have, but substituting your GF All Purpose Baking Mix which includes all the leavening. The only reason I’ve not done this one yet is the recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter and what a waste of butter if it doesn’t work out in the end. Any ideas on my theory on the pound cake? Love all your recipes and baking suggestions as well as your YouTube videos which are so helpful (for me anyway).

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel

      If your fermentation method for boules and angel biscuits works well for you, then I don’t see why it wouldn’t work with the dough for this King Cake. Yes, you can sub the KA GF flour for the small amount in the filling. As for the pound cake – that’s a bit dicey, without having seen your original recipe. Do you already make the pound cake with GF flour – or do you make it via your fermentation method? This might be better figured out via our Hotline, since a short dialogue could answer a lot of questions. Give us a call if you’d like, 855-371-BAKE (2253); we’d be glad to chat. PJH

  3. Dennis Murray

    If I wanted to add a fruit filling, such as apple, how would I alter my recipe? I usually buy these cakes but may try my hand at one. This recipe sounds good and not too difficult to make.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      For a fruit filling you’d have to add a thickener like Instant ClearJel, or reach for one of the small cans of Solo fillings. They’re about the right amount, they taste good, and they won’t run out all over the place and make a mess. Susan

  4. Tina Adcock

    Thanks SO much for the recipe I can make myself! I love making the King’s cakes and this is a great version . It is a popular desser whenver I bring it for a crowd. I get my colored sugars and all the ingredients from King Arthur!

    Reply
  5. Rose Bond

    Maybe you can find the little plastic babies at a cake/candy supply store. I myself never bought one, but it’s worth a try.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That’s a good idea, Rose! Party stores are another good place to look for the plastic babies. Barb@KAF

    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      You could use any of the emulsions in the dough Shelly. I think orange would be nice as well, citrus is always nice for spring. ~ MJ

  6. Rocky

    My favorite King Cake recipe has as its final ingredient “10 mg Valium” because, as the recipe explains, you’re going to need it after all that sugar. I love making King Cakes, but I tend to overdo it. I make 3 filled strands, braid them together, then form them into a ring. Just because I can. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Mary Ellen Riley

    Now the $100 question…. do you guys sell the plastic babies to put in the cake?

    Oh, and I LOVE the new printing features on the recipe sight. It is awesome!! Very user friendly, sleek, functional and pretty.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      No, we do not Mary Ellen. Try a store that sells party supplies in your area or online. We had a customer that bought some online. And not just some…she bought 100 because it was the same price as 25! Not sure what she will do with that many babies! We are pleased you are enjoying the new features added to our recipe page. Thank you! Elisabeth@KAF

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