Monday, February 11, 2013

King Cake for Mardi Gras!

Given that my heritage is largely rooted in the Intermountain West, it's only been in recent years that I have learned about the King Cake tradition associated with Mardi Gras. As I pointed out in my very first post, we are a family who loves to eat. I decided for this post to share our King Cake recipe.

For those of you who also may be unfamiliar with King Cake traditions, King Cake is one of the more familiar foods associated with Mardi Gras celebrations. The Spanish and French settlers of the southeastern United States brought the King Cake Tradition with them. King Cake actually can be served any time throughout the Carnival season which extends from January 6 (Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night) to Shrove Tuesday. 

The King Cake is more of a sweetened yeast bread than what most of us think of as cake. The more simple King Cakes include cinnamon and sugar much like a cinnamon roll. Other king cakes may include fillings such as cream cheese or praline. The cake is frosted with  powdered sugar icing and then sprinkled with gold, green, and purple sugar. A key feature of the King Cake is the inclusion of a small trinket. This trinket may be a small porcelain or plastic baby (representing the Baby Jesus), a bean, or a crown. According to tradition, the one who finds the trinket, gets to make the King Cake for the next year.

As a bit of trivia, the traditional gold, purple and green Mardi Gras colors were designated in 1892. Purple stands for justice, green stands for faith, and gold stands for power.

Since I am rather new to making a King Cake, I'm not entirely sure how true to tradition my recipe is. Feel free to give it a try:

2 envelopes active dry yeast (I prefer Rapid Rise)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup warm milk (about 120 - 130°F)
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 - 1 cup powdered sugar (start with 1/2 cup and add more as needed until filling is desired consistency)
1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)
1 plastic king cake baby, large dry bean, or a pecan half

3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Purple-, green-, and gold-tinted sugar crystals

Directions: (Note: If you have them, use your dough hooks with your electric mixer to mix the dough)
Combine the yeast and granulated sugar together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the melted butter and warm milk. Beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add the egg yolks, then beat for 1 minute at medium-low speed. 

Add the flour, salt, nutmeg, and lemon zest and beat until everything is incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball, and starts to climb up the dough hook. (If the dough is uncooperative in coming together, add a bit of warm water (110 degrees), a tablespoon at a time, until it does.)

Remove the dough from the bowl. Using your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly oil a bowl with the vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

To make the filling: In a small mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and powdered sugar using an electric mixer. Stir in the sliced almonds. 

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers, pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide. Spread the filling over the dough, then fold it into thirds lengthwise. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a cylinder and place it seam side down on a baking sheet seam lined with parchment paper. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn't a seam. Insert the king cake baby, bean, or pecan into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough.

Filling spread out on dough
Dough folded into thirds
Cover the ring and place in a warm, draft-free place. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Bake at 350°F until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the icing: Combine the remaining tablespoons milk, lemon juice, and powdered sugar in medium-size mixing bowl. Spread the icing evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the colored sugar, alternating colors around the cake.
King Cake is ready for Mardi Gras!

To learn a little more about the King Cake tradition, here is a short video clip courtesy of the History Channel: