I had never celebrated (or particularly noticed) Mardi Gras before. I have never even been to New Orleans. Despite this, as Fat Tuesday rolled around this year, I resolved to make a “king cake,” a special Mardi Gras treat.
I had never eaten a king cake before or even seen one in person. I once watched a cooking show in which a woman made a king cake, and that was basically the extent of my knowledge and Mardi Gras food up until a few days ago. I was both fascinated and appalled by the amount of icing she put on the cake; a yearning to try to make it took hold in my mind, “Inception” style. But with cake.
Turns out, king cake is kind of a misnomer. It is really more like a giant cinnamon roll, or even just bread with tons and tons of sugar. Also, it turns out that I don’t really like king cake very much. Oh well. Other people liked it and went back for seconds (which was good because it was absolutely enormous—I probably let the dough rise too much), but it’s definitely not for everyone.
I had to admit that it looked pretty, in a kind of trippy way. The Louisiana king cake is usually decorated with purple, green, and gold—traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any decorative sugars, so I made my own—this was probably my favorite part of making the cake. I put white granulated sugar and some food coloring in a jar, then shook it around for a minute, and voila! Colored sugar. It’s not rocket science, I know, but colors make me so happy.
I realize this recipe looks insanely long and elaborate and, therefore, a bit scary. It is indeed time consuming, but it does not have to be done all at once, and there’s a lot of waiting time in between. I also skipped the whole fava bean and plastic baby thing (meant to represent baby Jesus). I’m pretty sure Weshop doesn’t stock plastic babies, and I’m pretty okay with that.
1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110 degrees
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. dry yeast
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup melted butter
5 eggs yolks, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. grated fresh lemon zest
3 tsp. cinnamon
several gratings of fresh nutmeg
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
1 fève (fava bean) or plastic toy baby to hide in the cake after baking
1. For the cake, pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
2. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam (about five minutes), whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Fold the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
3. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
4. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide it into three equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making three ropes of equal length. Braid the ropes and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size again, about 30 minutes.
6. Once the dough has risen, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it’s too thin, add a little more powdered sugar.
8. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.