A Traditional King Cake is my favorite way to celebrate the Mardis Gras holiday. The soft and fluffy, yeast dough sets the perfect foundation for a sweet, smooth frosting. Decorated with an array of purple, green and gold sprinkles, it’s easy to understand why this cake is the best part of the celebration!
I’ve never been to New Orleans, but it is high up on my wish list of places to go. The community, the music, the food…from what I’ve heard, there’s no other place like it!
Aside from the Creole and the French Quarter, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is that New Orleans is most well-known for Mardis Gras. The carnival lasts for days leading up to Ash Wednesday, and what better way to ring in Lent than with an amazingly, festive cake.
What is King Cake?
If you’ve never had King Cake, you need to GET. ON. IT. Since I live up north, it’s hard to get into the Mardis Gras spirit, however, I find I have a much easier time with this cake in front of me.
King Cake is ahhmazing. The dough, is super soft and pillowy; kind of like a cross between a coffee cake and pastry. King Cake is made from a yeast-based dough and is very light and airy.
Traditional King Cake (the version I made here) has a cinnamon swirl that runs through the layers. I’ve read is how it was made originally back in the day, although some others might be filled with fruit, cream cheese or pralines.
However, there are two characteristics that are always constant; the cake is braided into a circle and the top is covered with a thick glaze and traditional gold, purple & green sprinkles.
Why is there a baby in a King Cake?
Normally, you can find a small figurine hidden somewhere in the King Cake- usually, it’s a small plastic baby. Why? I did some research and there’s a lot of ambiguity around this tradition.
History says, whoever finds it can be ruler for the day, but I’ve also read that it simply means that it’s that person’s turn to buy the next cake. I didn’t add a baby into my cake here, but it’s definitely something fun to look into (FYI – it’s probably best to insert the figurine inside the cake AFTER baking, and be careful that the person who gets it doesn’t choke, that’s always my fear, hah!)
How to make a Traditional King Cake
The first time I tasted King Cake, I didn’t think it was something I could ever replicate at home, but I do have to say, it was pretty straightforward to make! For some reason, working with yeast always scares me.
This looks like a lot of steps, but as is most things that require a yeast dough.
First, you want to mix up the ingredients for the dough and need it. I think it’s easiest to use the dough hook attachment on the stand mixer, but you could do this by hand.
The dough is ready when it is soft, very elastic and nothing should stick to the sides of the bowl.
Set the dough aside in an lightly greased bowl for about an hour.
Since the dough had time to rest, it should double in size. You can see HOW MUCH the dough filled out the bowl here. Once your dough has risen, divide the dough into two halves.
Roll each ball of dough into a large rectangle and spread the filling evenly.
Take the two logs and twist them together to form a ring. You can do this by laying one log down straight, on your surface and then gently lay over the other log, then the other to “twist” them together.
I did my best to secure the two ends together, it doesn’t have to be perfect!!
Your dough ring should rise again for another 20 minutes before baking.
Here’s what the cake looks after baking and before icing! A nice golden brown around all sides.
As mentioned, the only trouble I had while making this cake was with the ends of the dough splitting apart after braiding them together…oh well. The important thing here is that the icing will drip down the sides to cover any imperfections, and that explosion of color will distract anyone from noticing.
I didn’t have gold, purple and green sprinkles on hand
If you find you’re out of stock and in a pinch, you can take plain ol’ granulated sugar and dye it the colors you need. Pour some sugar in a zip lock baggy and add the food coloring. Then, seal the bag, smoosh it and roll the sugar around until your desired shade is achieved.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what those colors represent! Purple is for justice, green is for faith, and gold represents power. Or simply put, yum, yum & yum.
Traditional King Cake
For the Dough
- 1 16-ounce container sour cream
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/4-ounce envelopes active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water 100° to 110°
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 large eggs lightly beaten
- 6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour*
For the Filling
- 1/3 cup butter softened
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (optional)
- 3 c powdered sugar
- 3 tbsp butter or cream cheese, softened
- 2-4 tbsp tablespoons milk
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp teaspoon vanilla extract
- Purple-green-, and gold-tinted sparkling sugar sprinkles
- Add first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat & cool mixture to 100° to 110°.
- In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, stir together yeast, 1/2 cup warm water (105°-108°), and 1 tablespoon sugar and let stand for 5 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, add the sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, and 2 cups flour. Give a quick stir with a spatula and turn on at medium speed. As the ingredients start to come together, reduce speed to low, and gradually add the remaining flour (4 to 4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms.
- Once the dough forms, lower the speed and allow the dough to knead until smooth and elastic (up to 10 minutes). Place in a lightly greased bowl.
- Cover and let rise in a warm place (85° is ideal) for 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size.
- When ready, divide the dough in half. Roll each portion into a long rectangle. Spread the softened butter evenly on each rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle evenly over the butter on each dough rectangle.
- There are multiple ways to form the dough ring, I rolled up each dough rectangle, starting at the long side. Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a sheet lined with parchment. Do the same with the second roll. Pinch the tops together, and twist the dough logs over each other to give a braided look. Bring the other ends around together to form a ring, ensuring to make a good seal at the seam.
- Cover and let rise in a warm place again, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Bake for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden.
- After the cake is done baking, allow to cool most of the way. Meanwhile, in a large bowl mix the glaze ingredients until smooth & creamy.
- Pour glaze evenly over warm cake; sprinkle with colored sugars, alternating colors and forming bands. Let cool completely. Serve.