Is it a party without cake? While most kick off the New Year with fitness and health goals, others celebrate with a sweet dessert known as King Cake. King Cake is commonly associated with Epiphany, a Christian celebration that occurs at the beginning of January. In Louisiana, King Cake is eaten at the beginning of the Carnival season through the Mardi Gras holiday. Here we take an in-depth look at the roots, history, and story behind the colorful King Cake.
The Tradition Explained
King Cake is enjoyed by many people around the world, but this fun tradition first began in France in the 12th century. January 6, commonly known as “Three Kings Day” or “Twelfth Night”, marks the arrival of the Three Wise Kings in Bethlehem to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. When French settlers came to Louisiana in the 18th century, they brought this tradition with them, serving King Cake during Epiphany.
What is the Louisiana King Cake?
Curious about Louisiana King Cake? The Louisiana-style King Cake is made with a rich, brioche dough and a variety of fillings, such as cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. It’s usually circular or oval-shaped to mimic the appearance of a king’s crown – hence the name “King Cake.” In Louisiana, nothing signifies the start of Carnival season like a cake decorated with Mardi Gras colors! Each color representing a deeper meaning such as purple signifying “justice,” green representing “faith,” and gold representing “power.” In other parts of the world, King Cake is enjoyed in different forms depending on where it is. For example, in Spain and Latin American countries, it’s known as Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread with a light layer of icing that resembles the Louisiana-style Cake. The Portuguese version of King Cake is called Bolo rei and is ring-shaped and filled with candied fruit and occasionally nuts too.
Why is there a plastic baby inside?
Mardi Gras comes with a variety of unique traditions, and one of those includes a fun surprise: a plastic baby found in the center of a slice of this delectable cake. Originally, the first King Cake had a small dried fava bean and then evolved into a plastic baby figurine that represents baby Jesus. The theory is that this tradition was started by a local bakery in New Orleans when they bought a very large shipment of small plastic dolls from Hong Kong in the 1950s. What does one do when they have too many plastic babies? Place them in the center of a King Cake of course! Whoever is lucky enough to receive the baby in their slice of cake is selected to host the next party. And then, Laissez les bon temps rouler! Or, let the good times roll!
Make your own King Cake at home! Check out one of our favorite King Cake recipe by Tori Avey:
Servings: 12 servings
Prep Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Kosher Key: Dairy
Description: A traditional recipe from food historian Gil Marks.
- 1 package active dry yeast (¼-ounce/7 grams/2¼ teaspoons); 1 cake fresh yeast (0.6-ounce/18 grams); or 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115°F for dry yeast; 80 to 85°F for fresh yeast)
- 1/2 cup warm milk (105 to 115°F for dry yeast; 80 to 85°F for fresh yeast) or sour cream
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar (1.75 ounces/50 grams)
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened (½ stick/2 ounces/57 grams)
- 2 large egg yolks or 1 large egg
- 3/4 tsp table salt
- 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (9.5 ounces/275 grams)
- ½ cup golden raisins (5 ounces/140 grams)
- Egg wash (1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon milk or water)
Cinnamon Filling Ingredients (optional):
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (3.75 ounces/105 grams)
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (1.25 ounces/35 grams)
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- 2/3 cup chopped slightly toasted pecans (2.5 ounces/70 grams), or 1/3 cup pecans (1.25 ounces/35 grams) and ¼ cup raisins (1.25 ounces/35 grams)
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted (½ stick/2 ounces/57 grams)
- 1 pecan half, large bean, or the baby (optional)
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar (4 ounces/115 grams)
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened (¼ stick/1 ounce/28 grams) (or ¼ cup cream cheese, softened (2 ounces/57 grams) (optional))
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 tbsp milk, buttermilk, fresh lemon juice, or water
- A few drops gold food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons yellow colored sugar (optional)
- A few drops green food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons green colored sugar (optional)
- A few drops purple food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons purple colored sugar (optional)
You will also need: mixing bowls, flat surface for kneading and rolling, rolling pin, pastry brush, baking sheet, cooling rack
To make the dough
- In a small bowl or measuring cup, dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, milk, sugar, butter, egg yolks, salt, and, for a flavored dough (but omit this if you are using a filling), the spice or zest.
- Blend in 1½ cups flour.
- Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft workable dough.
- On a lightly floured surface or in a mixer with a dough hook, knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 5 minutes.
- Knead in the citron, mixed candied fruit or golden raisins.
- Place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, or in the refrigerator overnight.
To make optional filling
- In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the pecans. Drizzle the butter over top and mix until crumbly.
- Punch down the dough and knead briefly.
If using the filling
- Roll the dough into a 16- by 10-inch rectangle, spread evenly with the filling, leaving 1 inch uncovered on all sides. If using a token, place it on the rectangle – be sure to warn your guests.
- Beginning from a long end, roll up jellyroll style.
- Then bring the ends together to form an oval. THK NOTE- ours ended up looking more like a circle. For an oval shape, you may wish to make a longer, thinner rectangle.
- Place on a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet, seam side down. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap spritzed with cooking spray and let rise at room temperature until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Brush the dough with the egg wash.
- Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack.
If not filling the cake
- Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a 24-inch-long rope. Braid the 2 ropes together, and bring the ends together to form an oval, pinching the ends to seal.
To make the icing
- In a medium bowl, stir the confectioners’ sugar, optional butter or cream cheese, vanilla, and enough milk until smooth and of a pouring consistency.
- If desired, divide the icing into thirds and tint each third with one of the food colorings. Or you can drizzle or spread the icing over the warm cake.
- While the icing is still wet, sprinkle with the colored sugar. Decorating a King Cake neatly can be tricky, it is quite a messy process! We found the easiest way to do this neatly is to use a pastry brush to apply icing to each section, then sprinkle with sugar, let dry, and move on to the next section. For the braided cake, follow the braid pattern around the cake, using one color at a time and applying to each icing section directly after applying while still wet (the icing dries fast!). Then allow the icing to dry and gently tap off the excess sugar before starting the next color.
- Serve warm or at room temperature. After cooling, the cake can be wrapped well in plastic, then foil and stored at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Do not cover with the icing before freezing.