King Cake

I realize I’ve been slacking on adding new content to the page for the past week or so. There are several reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I’ve been getting ready for our annual Mardi Gras bash, which we held last night. It might perhaps more accurately be called a Samedi Gras bash, because we always hold it the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, but that would probably just confuse people.

We usually have a good spread of food for the party and last night was no exception. Homemade sourdough bread with homemade hummus, lamb and veggie jambalayas, and, of course, the treat of the season, King Cake.

King Cake is an old Mardi Gras tradition whereby a toy baby is hidden inside the cake. Whoever gets the baby is named “king” of the party and assumes responsibility for bringing the cake to the next party. This was the third year I’ve made King Cakes, and I’ve struck on a good recipe that I really enjoy, adapted from a yeasted coffee cake recipe in the King Arthur’s Baking Companion. It’s not a difficult process, and the results compare favorably to the best bakery cakes in New Orleans. I just wish that Pittsburghers could appreciate the baby tradition, instead of slinking back to the cake with the baby in hand to re-hide it so they didn’t have to deal with making a cake next year—thanks, Kari, for finally adopting the neglected orphan!

King Cake

Cake Dough

* 2 packages instant yeast
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 3 cups all-purpose flour
* 1- 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 3-4 ounces warm water
* 1 large egg
* generous 1/3 cup sour cream
* 3/4 stick (6 Tablespoons) butter, very soft
* grated zest of one orange

Combine the first four ingredients in the bowl of your standard mixer. With its dough hook, stir them together on low speed until they’re well combined. Add about half of the water and the rest of the ingredients. Continue mixing on lowest speed until everything is well combined. Add the remaining water slowly (you might not need quite all of it), waiting for each splash you add to be incorporated into the dough before you add any more. You want the dough to be soft and strechy, but not so moist that it’s sticky; it should be in a smooth, cohesive ball wrapped around the dough hook.

Put the dough in a lightly greased bowl (I usually use olive oil) and cover it with a cloth; let it rise for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until it’s doubled in size. While it rises, make the filling:


* 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
* the rest of the stick of butter (2 tablespoons)
* 1/4 cup sugar
* dash of salt
* 1 teaspoon flavoring: vanilla extract or liquor of your choice
* 2 tablespoons flour
* 1 large egg
* 1/2 cup jam. I try to coordinate the jam and the flavoring: for instance, apricot brandy with apricot jam

Beat together the first five ingredients until well combined and smooth in texture. Add the egg and beat until it has been incorporated. Fold in the jam with a rubber spatula until the filling has a uniform texture and color.

To roll out the dough and assemble the king cake, you’re going to need a good four feet of uninterrupted clean counter space. Dust the counter with flour and roll the dough out to a thin rectangle measuring 7.5 to 8 inches wide and 2.5 to 3 feet long. The dough is incredibly easy to work with, so you shouldn’t have much trouble guiding it where you want it to go. Just don’t break any pieces off and try to attach them to elsewhere in the rectangle: the pieces will not roll together and you’ll have a tougher time assembling the cake.

Spread the filling along the middle third of your dough rectangle, from end to end. Make even, diagonal cuts on each side of the rectangle. Both sets of cuts should slant downward (cuts on one side are all parallel to each other, but perpindicular to the cuts on the opposite side of the dough). Fold the strips over, alternating one strip from each side so that they cross in the middle (sort of like braiding). Carefully transfer one end of the log to a parchment-lined baking sheet, then pick up the rest of it and wrap it around to form a ring. Merge the ends where they meet as best you can; don’t be concerned if it’s not a gorgeous juncture, because you can cover that area liberally with icing to hide any imperfections.

Let the cake rise, covered, for about 45 minutes (until it looks somewhat puffy). Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 F. Bake the cake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the pan to a rack to cool.

Once the cake has cooled, slice a slit in the bottom of the cake and hide the baby (or other token) in the already-cooked cake. Do not cook a plastic baby in the cake: it will melt!


*2 cups confectioners’ sugar
* 4 tablespoons water
* grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 orange

Mix together all ingredients until smooth. The icing should pour easily, but not be runny or watery. Adjust the texture as needed by adding additional amounts of water or sugar—just be careful when adding more water ’cause a little dab’ll do ya. Add a drop or two of food coloring to all or part of the icing if you want to add a splash of color to your creation.

7 Responses to “King Cake”

  1. Lydia Says:

    Your king cake looks beautiful! I always wondered whether King Cake had a particular recipe, or whether it was just named for the king hidden inside any kind of cake?

  2. Janice Says:

    I think I got the “rehid” Baby Jesus which was in the Apricot Cream Cake. I will make a King Cake next year.

  3. Mom Says:

    I watched you make bread when we were there at Christmas. For the past 30 years, I’ve been making bread with my electric mixer and have always put the water in first and added flour as needed to get the dough the proper consistency. I guess it’s hard to learn new ways but I still feel more confident with my way and feel that I have more control over the dough. Just goes to show that there’s more than 1 way to make bread. I’m hoping to use my day off to make a King Cake today.

  4. jwsharrard Says:

    When you buy a King Cake in New Orleans, it’s always a brioche-type dough with some sort of filling; I believe that is the traditional format. A token in another kind of cake would accomplish the goal of coronating a king (or queen) just as well, but wouldn’t have the same taste/flavor, which, when it comes right down to it, is something that I associate with the holiday.

    I’ve recently learned about a couple of other token-containing cakes:

    Ribbon Pulls are a Southern wedding tradition. Several clairvoyant charms, each tied to a long ribbon, are hidden inside a cake with the ribbon trailing out. The bride chooses several single women from within her reception each to pull the end of a ribbon; the charm each gets is supposed to tell each woman’s future.

    Money Cake is something that Kari’s grandmother used to make for people’s birthdays. She would hide several coins inside the cake and secretly marked where the highest concentration was to be found so that the guest of honor would get the most money.

    PS—Hooray, Janice!

  5. kari Says:

    if I forget next year, please remind me that the baby is living in my jewelry box!

    gramma also made sure that there were pieces of cake with no money for babies and people who couldn’t be trusted not to swallow coin. And! don’t cook the money! put it in before you frost!

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  7. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » King Cake Question Says:

    [...] tried making your king cake twice now and it just doesn’t work.  The dough never rises.  You say it’s easy to [...]

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