Mardi Gras King Cake

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If you can't get to Louisiana for Mardi Gras this year, making a king cake is the next best thing.

King Cake
Photo: Jennifer Causey; Food Styling: Ana Kelly; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke
Active Time:
30 mins
Rise Time:
2 hrs 15 mins
Bake Time:
25 mins
Cool Time:
30 mins
Total Time:
3 hrs 40 mins
Yield:
1 king cake

This iconic treat might seem intimidating, but once you let the yeast dough rise, the good times roll together quickly.

Similar to coffee cake, king cake is as rich in tradition and history as it is in color and taste. Trademark decorations—sanding sugars in the royal colors of purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power)—honor the three kings who visited the Christ child on Epiphany, the 12th day after Christmas.

Also known as King's Day, Mardi Gras marks the start of merrymaking that continues until the grand finale on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

While it's made in the traditional ring shape, this classic Mardi Gras King Cake recipe doesn't need braiding or filling. It's topped with a simple powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water glaze, and sprinkled sanding sugar as you'd traditionally see on the streets of New Orleans. Instead of hiding a plastic baby inside, you can use a pecan half or a dried bean for an all-natural option. Per tradition, if you end up with the pecan (or baby) you get to be in charge of bringing the King Cake to the next Mardi Gras party.

Ingredients

Cake

  • ½ cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)

  • 2 (¼-oz.) package active dry yeast

  • ½ cup plus 2 tsp. granulated sugar, divided

  • 2 teaspoons table salt

  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest (from 1 lemon)

  • 4 - 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface

  • 4 large egg yolks

  • ½ cup warm milk (105°F to 115°F)

  • ½ cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter, melted

  • Cooking spray

  • ½ cup finely chopped candied citron (optional)

  • Unsalted butter, for baking sheet

  • 1 pecan half or uncooked dried bean

Glaze

  • 2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

  • 2 tablespoons water

Additional Ingredient

  • Purple, green, and gold sanding sugar

Directions

  1. Prepare the Cake: Stir together warm water (105°F to 115°F), yeast, and 2 teaspoons of the sugar in a small bowl; set in a warm place until foamy, about 5 minutes.

  2. Beat salt, nutmeg, zest, 4 cups of the flour, and remaining ½ cup sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on medium-high speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Add egg yolks, warm milk, melted butter, and yeast mixture; beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute.

  3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface; knead in up to remaining 1 cup flour, ⅓ cup at a time, until dough is no longer sticky. Continue kneading until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

  4. Place dough in a bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°F) free from drafts until doubled in bulk, about 1½ hours.

  5. Punch down dough, and place on a lightly floured work surface. (If desired, sprinkle with candied citron; knead until citron is evenly distributed.) Shape dough into a cylinder 30 inches long.

  6. Place dough cylinder on a buttered baking sheet; shape into a ring, pinching ends together to seal. Press pecan half gently into dough ring from underside of dough so it is completely hidden inside the dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F.

  7. Bake Cake in preheated oven until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet 30 minutes.

  8. Prepare the Glaze: Stir together powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water in a small bowl until smooth.

  9. Drizzle Cake with Glaze; sprinkle with sanding sugar, alternating colors.

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