Mardi Gras is Tuesday -- do you have your king cake?
At first sight, it may come across as, well, a little unusual. A large wreath-shaped cake bedazzled in vibrant shades of purple, green and gold — there's nothing subtle about it. It might be flavored simply with a touch of cinnamon sugar, or maybe it's decked out with any of a number of creative fillings. Help yourself to a slice, or two — just be careful you don't accidentally bite into the plastic baby.
Behold the wonder that is the king cake. For many, a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras is simply not complete without it.
Largely drawn from Catholic tradition, Mardi Gras is the culmination of the Carnival season, a magical stretch of the calendar that spans from Jan. 6 (Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day) through Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the last hurrah before Ash Wednesday and the sobering start to Lent. Variations of the cake span a number of Catholic-influenced cultures and countries, as varied as the French gâteau de rois and Mexico's rosca de reyes.
Of course, no one does king cake quite like New Orleans. It's decorated in the colors of Mardi Gras — purple (to represent justice), green (faith) and gold (power) — as chosen by one of the city's first Mardi Gras organizations, or krewes. A token or trinket — usually a plastic baby symbolizing the infant Jesus — is hidden inside. Whoever finds the baby may be crowned king or queen of the party; more important, that person is responsible for bringing the cake to the next gathering.
I try to get back to New Orleans whenever I can to celebrate Mardi Gras. When I can't (more often than not), I celebrate locally with friends, baking my own king cakes. They take a little bit of effort but are well worth the time. And nothing beats the flavor of homemade.
I've included a recipe for my king cake below. Outside of Carnival season, the recipe makes a great coffee cake any time of the year.
No time to bake?
Here are a couple of links to Los Angeles-based bakeries with king cakes (I've had king cakes from each, and they're really good):
Happy Mardi Gras!
MARDI GRAS KING CAKE WITH CREAM CHEESE AND APPLE FILLING
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus rising times
Servings: 12 to 16
Note: The cake can be adapted to any occasion by substituting or eliminating the colored sugars. Colored sugars and plastic king cake babies generally are available at baking supply stores, as well as online. For better flavor, rehydrate the raisins in a small saucepan, covered with spiced rum, over low heat just until plump and tender.
2 tablespoons butter
2 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, just until the apple starts to soften, 3 to 4 minutes (the slices should still be crisp). Remove from heat and stir in the raisins and toasted pecans. Spread the apple mixture onto a baking sheet to stop the cooking process and allow the apples to cool quickly, then cover and refrigerate until needed.
CREAM CHEESE FILLING
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sugar
1/2 beaten egg (save the other half egg to make the egg wash for the cake)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the cream cheese with the vanilla, salt and sugar. Add the beaten egg to the cream cheese mixture and beat until thoroughly combined. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
2 ounces (¼ of an 8-ounce package) cream cheese
1/4 cup (½ stick) butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a medium bowl using a hand mixer, whisk together the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt until completely combined. With the mixer running, add the sifted powdered sugar, one spoonful at a time, until fully incorporated.
BRIOCHE DOUGH AND KING CAKE ASSEMBLY
3/4 cup milk, divided
1 package (2½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
2 eggs, plus ½ beaten egg (use the remaining half egg left over from the cream cheese filling), divided
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
3 1/2 cups (15.75 ounces) bread flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream cheese filling
Cream cheese glaze