Mardi Gras came and went already! I know it’s a little late to be sharing a holiday-specific bakeventure, but this one is just too much fun not to. King cake is a dessert traditionally served between Epiphany and Mardi Gras. In execution and taste, it’s similar to a giant cinnamon roll with purple, green, and gold decorations on top and a suspicious plastic baby hidden inside (more on that later). This recipe might seem daunting due to the number of ingredients (and steps), but fear not! While it is time-consuming and at times labor-intensive, none of the steps are particularly hard, and none of the ingredients are particularly expensive unless you decide to go crazy with the decorations and filling.
I started with this recipe from Southern Living and made a few modifications. Because I wanted to braid the dough but still fill it, I decided to use ¾ of the original recipe, which is meant to make two cakes. In actuality, I made the full recipe, divided the dough in 4, then made one big cake with 3 of the pieces and one small cake with the remaining piece. I’ve adjusted the measurements so that the recipe yields enough for one large, braided cake, so if you would rather skip the braiding business and just makes plain rings, you can always follow the original recipe’s measurements. I am well aware that some of the fractions I’ve used are not truly ¾ of the original measurement (the mathematician in me shudders at just having to write this), but in the cases where I’ve made these substitutions, it won’t make enough of a difference to start breaking out the smaller measuring spoons.
I also chose to add spiced applesauce to the cream cheese filling. I used applesauce I made and canned over the summer, but any store-bought applesauce will do. If you don’t buy cinnamon or spiced applesauce, I’d recommend adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to the filling. You can also add ground walnuts or pecans, or finely-chopped, fresh fruit, or a spice blend of your choosing to give the cake a unique flavor.
You will need the following ingredients:
For the cake/dough:
- 12 oz. sour cream
- 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¾ tsp. salt
- 1½ packets active dry yeast
- ⅜ cup warm water
- 2 heaping tsp. granulated sugar
- 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
- 4½-5 cups bread flour
For the filling:
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- 12 oz. (1½ packages) cream cheese, softened
- 1 large egg white
- 1½ tsp. vanilla extract
- ⅔ cup cinnamon applesauce
- 2¼ cups powdered sugar
- 2 Tbsp. butter, melted
- 1½ Tbsp. apple cider
- 1½-3 Tbsp. milk
- ¼ tsp. vanilla extract
- purple, green, and gold sanding sugar or sprinkles for decorating (I like these gold stars a lot)
- purple, green, and yellow/gold Sixlets for edible Mardi Gras beads (optional)
For baking ambiance:
- Earth, Wind, and Fire was on my mind due to the recent news of its founder’s passing, so it was a no-brainer to listen to their music while baking this weekend. If you’re in more of a Mardi Gras mood, feel free to substitute some zydeco (anything where one of the band members plays a metal shirt with a stick is fair game).
Let’s get baking!
In a medium saucepan, combine the sour cream, butter, ¼ cup of sugar, and salt. Heat and stir the mixture over low heat until the butter is completely melted. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool to lukewarm (approximately 100°-110°F).
Meanwhile, stir together the warm water and remaining sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or other large mixing bowl. Pour the yeast on top and let it sit for 5 minutes, or until it is foamy.
Pour in the sour cream mixture and 1½ cups of bread flour into the yeast water and beat with a dough hook (or wooden spoon) on medium speed until it is smooth. There will be some lumps, so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get them all.
Stir in the remaining flour on low speed, 1 cup at a time, until a soft ball of dough forms. When I made the full batch of dough, this ended up being too much volume for my 4.5-quart stand mixer, so proceed with caution toward the end of yours is a similar size.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, or until it becomes smooth and elastic.
Put the dough ball in a greased bowl, turning it once to coat both sides. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave it in a warm place to rise until it is doubled in size, roughly one hour.
When the dough is gigantic (see above), punch it down (if you’re stressed out, you can go ahead and give it a couple extra punches just for fun).
Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces (you can use a kitchen scale for accuracy, but I just eyeballed it). Set these aside momentarily while you prepare the filling.
In a medium bowl, beat together all of the filling ingredients until smooth (some small lumps are fine, and probably unavoidable).
On a lightly-floured surface, roll one piece of dough at a time into a 22″ by 6″ rectangle.
Spread a think layer of filling on each sheet of dough, leaving a 1″ border on all sides. Don’t give in to the temptation to lay the filling on thick because it will just leak out when you roll the dough up.
Starting on the long side, roll each sheet of dough into a long rope.
Carefully transfer all three ropes to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (I used a pizza pan) and lay them side-by-side. They will probably hang off on each side, but that’s ok. Carefully braid the ropes like you would braid hair (for those of you who don’t know how to braid hair, all you have to do is fold the outer strands alternately over the current middle strand like so).
This will probably take a little finessing, but now you have to bring the two ends together to form a ring. Wet the dough slightly and pinch it together to attach them (they won’t really stay all that well, so just do your best to make it look presentable).
Cover the braided ring with a towel and leave it to rise until it’s doubled in size, which should take another 30 minutes or so.
When your loaf is sufficiently engorged, preheat your oven to 375°F. Bake the cake for 30-35 minutes, turning once halfway through so it browns evenly. It should reach an internal temperature of about 200°F when it’s done. (If you look closely, you can see holes all over mine from my various temperature tests).
Leave the cake to cool completely on a cooling rack. When it is completely cool, carefully flip it over and cut a hole big enough in the bottom to fit your plastic baby (or other similarly-sized object) inside.
I personally found the standard plastic babies a little creepy, so I opted instead for a plastic figurine of dragon hatchlings. Whatever you use, be sure to clean it thoroughly before sticking it into your food. I’d also recommend trying to remember where it is in the cake so you don’t try to cut through it, and so you can keep an eye on whoever gets that piece to make sure they don’t choke on it.
Once you’ve stuck the object into the hole, replace the outer part of the hole you cut like a cap and flip the cake back over.
In a medium bowl, stir together the powdered sugar, melted butter, apple cider, vanilla extract, and 1½ tablespoons of milk until smooth. Add milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until your frosting achieves a good spreading consistency.
Spread the frosting all over the top of the cake. Try to make it even and fill in any dry spots.
Decorate the cake with purple, green, and gold sanding sugars or sprinkles in whatever pattern you like. I also added some gold stars and edible Mardi Gras beads made of Sixlets for extra festivity. If you come up with other fun decoration ideas, please share below!
You can download the printable PDF recipe here: King Cake