I went to school at LSU (a third generation tiger – geaux tigers!). Every year starting on January 6th, the King Cakes would show up in stores, since that is the start of Carnival season, which ends on Mardi Gras day. During Carnival season, I would eat a LOT of King Cake because people were always bringing them to work or to my house. It was my favorite time of year because King Cake is one of my favorite things to eat.
A King Cake is more of a bread than a cake. It’s a yeast roll that is filled with cinnamon or cream cheese, praline or a fruit jelly. It’s then glazed and decorated with the Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold.
Since a King Cake is a yeast roll, it is a little bit involved to make so you’ll want to give yourself a bit of time to make it. Even though it’s a bit involved, it’s not too hard, so don’t be afraid. I’ll walk you through each step.
Start by heating the sour cream, sugar, butter and salt together in a pan until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Then remove it from the heat and start letting it cool to 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature is very important, which I will cover below.
When the sour cream mixture is almost at 110 degrees, the next thing you’ll do is wake up the yeast. When you buy the yeast in the package, it is dormant and needs to be “woken up”. When yeast is stored at cool temperatures and without a food source, they stop growing, but once they have food (in the form of sugar) and are at a preferred temperature (in warm water), they start growing again. Like any organism, yeast have an optimal growth temperature. If they are too cold, they will grow very slowly and if they are too hot, they will die. So the temperature here is very important and I would absolutely recommend using an instant read thermometer.
Wake up the yeast with warm water (100 to 110 degrees) and sugar and let it sit for about 5 minutes. You will notice the yeast will start to bubble and have that yummy bread smell. Once the yeast are awake, you’ll mix the yeast with the warm sour cream mixture, which should be at the right temperature so you don’t kill the yeast!
Then you’ll mix the yeast-sour cream mix in a stand mixer, add in the eggs and then the flour-spice mixture about 2 cups at a time. The recommended flour for this is bread flour, which has a higher gluten content than other flour. The higher gluten content will give the King Cake a better structure. The end mixture should be slightly sticky but not wet, so start with less flour and then add more until it is the right consistency. “Sticky” should mean that it sticks to your hand a little but not to the point where it is a struggle to get it off your fingers. Next, you’ll knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 8-10 minutes. Kneading is very important to develop the gluten and give the bread the proper structure. You’ll know you’re done kneading when the dough becomes springy. If you touch the dough, it should spring back. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover with a towel.
After kneading, it’s time to proof, or let the dough rise. This is done by incubating the dough at a warm temperature for an hour, which allows the yeast to start eating the sugars in the dough and produce carbon dioxide, the gas that raises the dough. Proofing should ideally be done at a warm temperature because yeast like it warm. The pros use a proofing drawer, but us amateurs don’t often have one of those, but you can easily make your own proofing drawer in your own oven! All you need is boiling water and a casserole dish. Pour the boiling water into the casserole dish and put the dish on the bottom rack of the oven. Put the dough on the top rack. Close the oven and leave it for an hour without opening the door. (The oven is OFF for this step).
While the dough is rising, prepare the cream cheese filling in a stand mixer.
After an hour, take the dough out of the oven. Punch it down and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Roll one half out into a 22×12 inch rectangle. You may need to cut down the edges to make it more of a rectangle. Spread half of the filling evenly and completely over the rectangle. Roll the dough long-wise into a long tube and then form it into a circle. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Place each cake onto a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover with a dish towel. Prepare the proofing drawer again by re-boiling the water and pouring it into the casserole dish. Put the hot water on the bottom rack and the dough on the top rack. Proof for another hour.
After an hour, take the dough out of the oven and remove the casserole dish. Heat the oven to 375. Take the towel off of the dough and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the cakes are golden brown.
Let the cakes cool completely before glazing. Make the glaze and either glaze the whole cake with uncolored glaze and decorate with purple, green and gold sugar or separate the glaze into three batches and add the food dye to the glaze.
King Cakes traditionally have a baby hidden on the inside. King Cakes you buy at the store will come with a baby to put inside, but most people outside of Louisiana will have trouble finding a tiny plastic baby. You can use a large bean instead, like a big dried butter bean. The bigger the better because you don’t want people biting down onto a hard, dried bean and cracking a tooth. To put the baby or bean inside, gently lift the cake up and put the bean or baby in from the bottom side so that the location of the surprise is a secret.
Have a slice as dessert or (my personal favorite) with a cup of coffee for breakfast.
Mardi Gras King Cake
Prep time: 30 minutes
Proof time: 2 hours
Cook time: 25 minutes
Makes: 2 large King Cakes
For the King Cake:
16 oz. container sour cream
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp salt
1/2 oz. active dry yeast (two 1/4 ounce packages)
1/2 cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees)
1 tbsp sugar
2 large eggs
6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tbsp cinnamon
For the filling:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
16 oz. cream cheese, room temperature or soft
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
For the glaze:
3 cups powdered sugar
3 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 to 4 tbsp milk
Food coloring to make purple, green and gold
Combine the sour cream, sugar, butter and salt together in a small pot and heat over medium high heat. Stir until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to 100 to 110 degrees.
When the sour cream mixture is at about 115 degrees, combine the yeast with the 100 to 110 degree water. Stir in 1 tbsp sugar and let sit for 5 minutes or until the yeast starts to bubble.
Combine the sour cream mixture with the yeast mixture in the bottom of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Beat on a slow speed. Add the eggs and beat to incorporate. Add in the flour about a cup at a time until it is fully incorporated. You may not need the extra half cup. The dough should be a little sticky but not wet. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 8-10 minutes or until the dough is springy. Test by touching the surface and see if the indent bounces back. Grease a large bowl with butter and cover with a kitchen towel.
Prepare a proofing drawer in your oven by bringing a pot of water to a boil. Place the boiling water in a casserole dish and put the hot water on the bottom shelf of your oven and the dough bowl on the top rack. Close the oven and rest for an hour or until the dough has doubled. Don’t open the oven!
When there is about 15 minutes left on the proof, prepare the filling by creaming the sugar and cream cheese together until smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla.
After an hour, turn the dough out back onto your surface and punch it back down. Cut the dough in half into two even pieces. Roll the dough out into a 22 x 12 inch rectangle. Spread half of the cream cheese filling all across the dough. Roll it up long-ways. Repeat with the second half.
Prepare your proofing drawer in the oven again. Place the rolled dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet and cover with a dish towel. Place in the proofing drawer in the oven and let it rise for another hour.
After an hour, take out the baking sheet and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the King Cakes for 25-30 minutes or until the outside is golden brown.
While the cakes are cooling, make the glaze. Whisk the powdered sugar, melted butter, lemon juice and vanilla together. Add in 2 tbsp milk. If the mixture is not spreadable, add in milk until it is. For the decoration, you can either make three separate bowls and add the dye to that or glaze the cake with the uncolored glaze and sprinkle colored sugar on top.
When the cake is completely cool, insert the plastic baby or a large, dried bean from underneath (like a big dry butter bean. Something that is obvious and you won’t break your tooth on because you didn’t notice it.) Glaze the cake and decorate with purple, green and gold.
Slice and enjoy for dessert or my personal favorite, for breakfast with a big cup of hot coffee.