When I was growing up, we traveled to New Orleans a couple of times to visit family during Mardi Gras. We got all dressed up and staked out a prime spot along the parade routes. To help us little ones, my uncle attached a box to the top of two 5” ladders and my cousin and I relished our prized elevated perch. We could see right over the heads of the adults and yell “throw me sumthin’ mister” as the floats cruised slowly by. We came home exhausted and sorted through in our huge haul of beads and doubloons and trinkets.
To help us remember the fun and revelry, my grandmother sent a King Cake to DC so that we could have our own little Mardi Gras party. For the uninitiated, the New Orleans King Cake is a twisted ring of cinnamon coffeecake covered in icing and purple/green/gold sugar. And there is a plastic baby hidden inside. Nothing but fun there, right? She always included a stash of parade goodies and we had a grand old time.
Opening that box full of sticky sugar and biting into each slice hoping-but-hoping to get the baby was just about as happy a memory as I can bring up. I am not going to lie here, but I got the baby an astonishing number of times and came to believe that I had a sort of knack for it. Once I had a baby sister, our cakes somehow had two babies. I didn’t question. But now that I know how the baby gets in there (if you look carefully, you can see the slit where the baby was poked in through the bottom of the cake), I think my mom was really sweet for rigging the system for us.
In New Orleans, King Cake season starts on King’s Day (aka Twelfth Night aka Epiphany), the official end of the Christmas season. The person who got the baby in the cake was obliged to throw the next party and provide the next King Cake. It continued this way for a month or so culminating in the parties, parades and balls of Mardi Gras Week. It will come as no surprise that I am not having a cake shipped from New Orleans to London. Aside from the presumably absurd cost, I am after all in culinary school. I should be able to figure this one out, right? Mom has been experimenting for a while, so I picked up where she left off and, for better or worse, my slightly obsessive DNA kicked in on this one. I started with a recipe from Haydel’s Bakery available online and adapted it over 4 batches, I am very pleased with what we’ve got. Do try this at home if you don’t have a grandmother to ship one to you.
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New Orleans King Cake
New Orleans King Cake is a yeast-risen cinnamon bread-like cake, or cake-like bread, depending how you look at it. This recipe is more complicated than a basic cake, but isn’t unlike making cinnamon rolls. I started with the Haydel’s Bakery recipe, researched other recipes and made some adjustments along the way. What I ended up with is not too complicated and produced a nice silky coffee cake that isn’t too dry or too sweet. It is important that the cake isn’t too sweet since it will be iced. To my taste, fillings take the cake from nice to cloying.
I must also note that I am a firm convert to the weighing ingredients approach to baking. The original recipe was in cups. For the flour conversion, I used cups and weighed them each time. I have used my weight conversion below as it differs from the standard weights I have found in cookbooks. Lastly, I am not sure I would attempt this by hand. I used a hand mixer. In a KitchenAid, this would be a breeze.
½ cup/113g butter, room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup/8oz/227ml milk
2 ½ teaspoons of dried active yeast
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup butter, melted
Cinnamon sugar (ratio to taste, mine is about half-and-half)
2 cups icing sugar
milk (approximately 3T, or enough to reach the proper consistency)
lemon juice (optional, to taste)
vanilla (optional, to taste)
sanding sugar, preferably in purple, green and gold
Warm milk to approximately 100F. I do this by zapping it in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Add yeast to milk and let it sit.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add egg and vanilla until incorporated. Add milk and yeast on slow speed. This is going to turn into a big sloppy mess, but don’t worry. It will work itself out.
Add the salt to the flour and loosen it all up with a whisk. Add 1/3 of the flour and beat on slow speed until incorporated. Switch to bread hook and mix in the rest of the flour. Continue to knead with the bread hook until smooth, soft and slightly tacky (<5 minutes). It should be coming away from the sides of the bowl but it will be too sticky to knead by hand.
Lightly oil a bowl, place ball of dough in bowl and cover with a plate or clingfilm Leave it to rest for 1 ½ hours or so. I didn’t notice much rise, but the dough was nice and relaxed and slightly less tacky than it been.
Preheat oven to 375F/190C.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. Punch the air out of the dough and lightly knead it (<2 minutes). Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a long rectangle, approximately 24” x 12”. Trim ends so that the rectangle is somewhat tidy. This actually makes a huge cake, so don’t be afraid to trim. There is a good use for it later. No worries. Brush rectangle with butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar. And by “generously” I mean, use at least twice as much as you think. Feel free to add even more if you want this to be really cinnamony.
Shaping sounds harder than it is, and you do have some options here. To make your life easy, you can roll this up from one side. This works and leaves little room for error but will have a swirl pattern inside. This isn’t really traditional, but is a-okay. You also can slice the skinny rectangle the long way into either 2 or 3 strips. Whatever you do, pinch the edges of the roll or strips together to trap the buttery-cinnamon-joy inside of the dough. Either twist the two long strips or braid braid the three. Once you are back to one long piece of dough, give it a roll to seal it all back together.
[Trimmings can be rerolled, cut into small strips, brushed with remaining butter, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, rolled and twisted into little knots. These are very useful chef’s tasters hot out of the oven. They do teach us at school to TASTE EVERYTHING. Life is hard.]
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Quickly pick up the ends of the rope, move it to the sheet and shape into a ring. Where the two braided/twisted/rolled ends meet, pinch them together. I find this is best hidden in a corner. Cover with oiled clingfilm and allow to rise for an hour or so. You can test this by gently touching a bottom edge (out of sight spot). If it bounces back enthusiastically, it isn’t ready. If it doesn’t respond at all or responds only slightly, pop it in the oven.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway through baking. When golden, firm and the bottom is solid, remove to a wire rack to cool. Peel paper off bottom, but keep it around for a tidier icing operation. If you want to insert a baby or bean or any other talisman of good luck into the cake, do it now by poking it through the bottom. It is useful to keep track of where you did this since it will be difficult to turn the cake over once iced.
Once the cake is cool (or the next morning in my case), make the icing by adding milk a nit at a time at a time until it is drizzling consistency. (If it gets too thin, add more sugar). Add lemon juice and vanilla to taste. Spoon or drizzle over cake and cover generously with sanding sugar, silver balls or any other festive happy decorations. It is that kind of cake, after all.