King Cake is an integral part of Mardi Gras festivities. The coffee cake, a carnival tradition, is served at parties late into the evening during the six weeks between Three Kings Day and Fat Tuesday. New Orleans residents wouldn't think of making their own King Cake; that's what bakeries are for. Besides, the bakeshops add paper crowns, plastic beads, toy coins, and other trinkets to the cake box, creating a ready-made Mardi Gras hostess gift.
Louisiana bakers begin their own Mardi Gras observation on January 6, or Three Kings Day. By Fat Tuesday, which ends the festivities some six weeks later, bakers in New Orleans will have made more than 250,000 king cakes.
King cake is the traditional celebration cake of carnival. It's really a coffee cake, made from either brioche dough or puff pastry, filled with any number of sweet nut pastes, fruit, and pastry cream or cream cheese, and baked in a ring. The cake's decorative icing is often tinted in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power). Hidden inside, according to custom, is a plastic toy baby, which symbolizes the Christ child. It reputedly brings good fortune to the person in whose slice it is found.
Recipe: Mardi Gras King Cake
2-1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast3/4 cup lukewarm milk (95F to 110F)1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature1/3 cup granulated sugar1 teaspoon salt3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk3-1/2 cups bread flour
1-1/3 cups mixed golden raisins and dried cranberries2 cups almond paste1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature 1/2 cup granulated sugar4 large egg whites, 2 yolks reserved Zest of 2 medium lemons1/4 cup orange-flavored liqueur (preferably Cointreau)2 tablespoons water2 small plastic toy babies (optional)
2 cups confectioners' sugar2 tablespoons warm water4 to 5 teaspoons rum Food coloring (optional)
1. Prepare the brioche dough 1 day ahead. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the milk and set aside to proof.
2. In the bowl of a stationary electric mixer fitted with the flat paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt at medium speed until fluffy and light in color, about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and beat in 1 of the eggs. Add 1 cup of the flour and blend until smooth. Beat in the remaining 2 eggs and additional egg yolk, then add 1/2 cup more flour. Blend thoroughly.
3. Reduce the speed to low and add the yeast mixture. Slowly add the remaining 2 cups flour, a little at a time, blending between additions. Continue to mix for 2 minutes after all of the flour has been added. Remove the bowl from the stand, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise at room temperature for 1 hour.
4. Lightly grease a large bowl. Punch down the dough and transfer it to the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. (The dough will double in volume.)
5. To prepare the filling, place the raisins and cranberries in a small bowl and cover with hot tap water. Set aside to soak for 30 minutes. Drain and pat the fruit dry with paper toweling.
6. Meanwhile, combine the almond paste, butter, sugar, and egg whites in a food processor. Process to a smooth paste. Add the lemon zest and liqueur and process until smoothly blended. Cover and set aside.
7. Beat the reserved egg yolks with the 2 tablespoons water in a small dish for a wash; cover and set aside.
8. For the glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar and warm water in a medium-size bowl. Stir in the rum and blend into a smooth, fairly thick icing. Mix in a drop or 2 of food coloring, if desired. Cover and set aside.
9. To assemble, place the chilled brioche dough on a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough briefly to deflate and shape it into a ball. Divide the ball in half. Roll out 1 piece into an 18 x 6-inch rectangle. Spread half of the filling evenly down the center of the rectangle lengthwise. Scatter half the drained fruit over the filling. Push a plastic toy baby into the filling, if desired. Brush the exposed dough with the egg yolk and water wash.
10. Fold one long side of the rectangle over the filling, then fold the opposite side two-thirds over the dough to completely enclose the filling. (The log will be very full.) Press lightly to seal the seams. Shape the log into a ring, fitting one end inside the other and pinching the seams to seal tightly. Transfer the ring to a cookie sheet that has been lightly greased or lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature to rise for 45 minutes.
11. Repeat the rolling, filling, shaping, and rising process for the second piece of dough. To bake the coffee cakes one at a time, place the second in the refrigerator until the first goes into the oven, then allow it to rise for 1 hour before baking.
12. Preheat the oven to 350F. (You will need to heat 2 ovens to bake both coffee cakes simultaneously.)
13. Brush the rings with the egg yolk and water wash before baking. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the crust is deep golden brown. Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool for about 30 minutes. (The cake should be warm, but no longer hot.)
14. Set the rack over a baking sheet. Paint thoroughly with the glaze, which will melt slightly and adhere to the crust in a thin coating. Set aside to cool completely.
15. Cut into wedges and serve at room temperature.
Yield: 2 coffee cakes
Sometimes I make just one King Cake (cutting all filling and glaze ingredients in half) and use the remaining half of the dough for an airy loaf or dinner rolls.
For a Brioche Loaf form the dough into a loaf and fit it into a greased 8-1/2 X 4-inch loaf pan. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes. Brush with the egg yolk and water wash and bake in a 350°F oven about 35 minutes, until well browned and hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom.
For Brioche Rolls, divide the dough into six equal pieces, shaping each into a smooth round. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush with the egg yolk and water wash and bake in a 400F oven for about 15 minutes, until deep golden brown.