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If there’s one thing that’s consistent in New Orleans, it’s king cake on Mardi Gras. The cake has long served as a symbol for Fat Tuesday, a tangible (and edible!) testament to the beginning of Carnival season. It’s just as ubiquitous and beloved as the city’s raucous parades and costume-adorned krewes, with locals slicing into a wedge of cake almost as often as beads are tossed into crowds swinging with waving hands. 

Related Reading: 12 Ways to Get Your King Cake Fix for Mardi Gras

King cake is often shaped or braided into a plump ring, with a texture more similar to a yeast doughnut than a crumb cake. The top is drizzled with white icing and polished off with a showering of green, purple, and yellow sprinkles. But what truly makes the cake unique is that a ceramic baby has been hidden inside, tucked away into the dough. Whoever carves into the cake to reveal the baby is thought to be granted luck during the year—and comes away with the charge of bringing king cake to the next party (which is often just a day away).

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So instead of picking up a king cake at a bakery this year, why not make your own at home? Armed with a recipe from “The Little Local New Orleans Cookbook”—a compact, introductory guide to New Orleans cooking—it’ll be a breeze to bake your own version. And no matter if you don’t have a ceramic baby on hand (we’d be surprised if you do!); you can swap it with a dried fava bean, which had been the norm until the 19th century.  

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Excerpted from The Little Local New Orleans Cookbook. Copyright 2019 by Connected Dots Media. Illustrations by Courtney Jentzen. Reproduced by permission of The Countryman Press. All rights reserved.

King Cake Recipe

This Mardi Gras classic officially hits New Orleans bake­ries on Twelfth Night, which marks the opening of Carnival season. That’s the first moment it’s acceptable to eat king cake. Since Twelfth Night falls on January 6, it also means that any New Year’s resolutions involving weight loss are out of the question. If you’re lucky enough to get the king cake baby, know that it is both a gift and a mandate: It’s up to you to bring the king cake to the next party, which is probably tomorrow. If you can’t get a plastic baby, stuff the cake with a single dried fava bean, which was the norm until the late 1800s.

Note: If you don’t want to use artificial food coloring, try dyeing the sugar with pureed blueberries, turmeric, and cooked and pureed spinach, after straining the solids from each.

Note: Cardamom is not a traditional king cake flavor, but it is one that I add in mine. If you prefer to omit the cardamom sugar, split each king cake into three equal pieces and roll them out into long strands. Braid them before moving the two cakes onto the sheet pan and fashioning them into circles. Alternatively, fill the cakes with a stuffing of your choice, diced strawberries and crème fraîche or whatever you like.

King Cake

Makes: 2 large cakes
Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup warm water (about the temperature of bath water)
  • 5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups plus 3 tablespoons warm whole milk
  • 2 whole large eggs, room temperature
  • 3 large egg yolks room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) European-style unsalted butter, diced and at room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cardamom (optional) (see Note)
  • 1⁄8 cup granulated sugar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 3 cups coarse white sugar
  • Red, blue, and yellow food coloring (see Note)
Instructions
  1. Dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar in the warm water. Let it stand until it becomes foamy, about 15 minutes. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the yeast mixture, 2 cups flour, and 1 ¼ cups milk. Beat on medium-high for about 1 minute, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the mixture is smooth.
  2. Add 1 cup flour, 1⁄3 cup sugar, the whole eggs, 2 egg yolks, the orange zest, the salt, the cinnamon, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, and the almond extract to the mixing bowl and beat on medium with the paddle attachment until smooth.
  3. Add 12 tablespoons butter a little at a time, fully incorporating each bit before adding more. Repeat until all the butter is added.
  4. While the mixer is running, add 2 cups flour, ¼ cup at a time, fully incorporating each bit before adding more. There should be 1 cup flour remaining; slowly add this flour, a little at a time, and continue beating just until the dough comes together and the walls of the bowl are clean (you may not need the full 1 cup to achieve this).
  5. Place the dough on a floured work surface and knead until smooth and soft, about 4 minutes. If the dough sticks while you’re kneading it, add a little flour.
  6. Transfer the dough to a large, greased bowl. Roll the dough around in it until coated in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
  7. Press down the dough to deflate it. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  8. Press down the dough again to deflate it. On a floured work surface, split the dough into 2 equal pieces and roll each out until it is about a quarter of an inch thick. Try to get the dough as close to the shape of a rectangle as you can. Brush the dough with the melted butter and sprinkle with the cardamom and sugar, if using. Roll each piece of dough up. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper. Move each long piece of dough onto the parchment and wind it into a circle. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 45 minutes.
  9. Heat the oven to 350°F.
  10. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 egg yolk and the cream, forming a glaze. Uncover the sheet pans and brush the top of the dough with the glaze. Place them in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, until the tops are golden and the bread is cooked through. Remove from the oven and press the king cake baby or dried fava bean into the bottom of the cake if desired.
  11. Vigorously mix together the confectioners’ sugar, the remaining 3 tablespoons milk, the corn syrup, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract, making the icing.
  12. Divide the 3 cups coarse white sugar among 3 resealable plastic bags. Add 4 drops yellow food coloring and 4 drops blue food coloring to 1 bag. Seal and shake until the sugar is green. Add 4 drops red food coloring and 4 drops blue food coloring to the next bag. Seal and shake until the sugar is purple. Add 8 drops yellow food coloring to the final bag. Seal and shake until the sugar is yellow.
  13. Smooth the icing over the warm king cake and immediately top with the purple, green, and yellow sugar, alternating the colors as you go around the cake.
  14. Slice and serve.

Illustrations by Courtney Jentzen.

Amy Schulman is an associate editor at Chowhound. She is decidedly pro-chocolate.
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