King Cake is sweet bread dough filled with cinnamon cream cheese, rolled up jelly roll style, joined in the form of a circle, baked until golden, and then topped with creamy icing and colorful sugar. Symbolic of the three wise men’s route to elude King Herod, this historic favorite dates back to 12th century France.
Sometimes traditions can be confusing. Case in point: the King Cake.
For one thing, King Cake isn’t really a cake at all! King Cake is a gloriously filled, rolled sweet bread confection topped with creamy icing and liberal amounts of festively colored sugar.
For another thing, King Cake is said to have originated in 12th Century France to honor the three wise men whom came bearing gifts for the Christ child on the twelfth day after his birth–January 6–also known as the Epiphany, or King’s Day. The cake is formed in the shape of a circle, to signify the route taken by the three wise men after leaving the Christ child, so as to confuse any spies of King Herod that may be watching them to discover where the child was located. King Herod was nefarious that way. The King Cake, also known as Twelfth Night Cake for the reasons stated above, is served in many parts of the world on the Feast of the Epiphany in January. Three Kings + 12th Night = Epiphany
So why would King Cake be so popular during Mardi Gras time in the United States?
Well, Mardi Gras, literally translated from French is Fat Tuesday. (Doesn’t calling a day Mardi Gras sound so much more polite than calling it Fat Tuesday? I think so.)
The day called Fat Tuesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday, which happens to be the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the “Lenten” period leading to Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras is a celebration or carnival held between the Epiphany and Fat Tuesday in many parts of the world, perhaps the most well known of which occurs in New Orleans, Louisiana . (In 2014, the Mardi Gras period falls between January 6-March 4.) Since the Mardi Gras period leads to the Easter season, which also relates to the Christ child, Twelfth Night Cake, a.k.a. King Cake, is commonly served.
Phew! It all comes full circle! (pun intended)
The traditional Twelfth Night/King Cake is filled, rolled, baked, and may or may not be iced. The traditional Mardi Gras King Cake is filled, rolled, baked, and includes a tiny plastic baby inserted in the bottom of the cake for luck; the cake is then is iced and sprinkled with purple, gold, and green colored sugars.
The colored sugars came about in the late 1800’s, symbolizing:
- Purple = Justice
- Gold = Power
- Green = Faith
Thus, the Mardi Gras King Cake has evolved over time. Now enough about history! Let’s get on to the cake!
Eyes Wide Open Disclosure: King Cake does take time complete and assemble, but most of that time is spent waiting for the sweet bread dough to rise. In the interest of working smarter, I make good use of the rise time by preparing the filling, icing, and colored sugars while I wait for the yeast to work it’s magic in the dough.
Since King Cake is essentially a giant cinnamon roll–or at least my version is–once the dough has risen, it’s turned out onto a floured surface, and kneaded once or twice to form a loose-ish rectangle.
After which, roll the dough out to a 16-inch by 10-inch rectangle. Then, evenly spread the sweet, cinnamon cream cheese filling over the dough, leaving a clean 1/2-inch margin all around.
Lightly brush the clean edges of dough with water before tightly rolling the dough lengthwise over the filling. Once rolled, pinch the seams along the length of the roll to seal them.
Bring the ends together to form a large circle, pinching them together to seal. Carefully transfer the cake roll, seam side down, to half sheet pan lined with parchment paper. (Two large spatulas or a cake lifter work well for the transfer.) Reshape the dough into a circle, if necessary.
Cover the cake first with a sheet of plastic wrap, then with a clean kitchen towel. Allow the dough to rise a second time in a warm, draft free area for 20 minutes, or until nearly doubled in bulk.
During the second rise, preheat the oven to 375°F. Prepare the icing and color the sugars.
After the final rise, bake the King Cake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until it’s a nice golden brown. Let the cake rest on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes.
After the cake has cooled slightly, spread icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to ooze down the sides. Once the icing seems to settle, sprinkle the sugars in alternating colored stripes around the cake. Let the cake rest until the icing is set.
Once the icing has set, carefully transfer the cake to a large serving plate. Slice the Mardi Gras King Cake into individual servings to share. Be sure to keep an eye out for the person receiving the tiny plastic baby in their slice!
That lucky person is obligated to make the Mardi Gras King Cake for the celebration next year!
Symbolic of the Three Wise Men’s route to elude King Herod, this historic favorite dates back to 12th century France; King Cake is a sweet bread dough filled with cinnamon cream cheese, rolled up jelly roll style, joined in the form of a circle, baked, then topped with icing and colorful sugar.
2 hr, 30 Prep Time
23 minCook Time
2 hr, 53 Total Time
- 1 C. Vanilla Greek style yogurt
- ¼ C. granulated sugar
- 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
- ½ tsp. salt
- 2 ¼ tsp. instant yeast
- ¼ C. warm water (100 degrees F)
- 1 Tbs. honey
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 ½ to 3 ¾ C. all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 tsp. canola oil (for greasing the bowl)
- 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
- ½ C. granulated sugar
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- For the Icing:
- 2 C. powdered sugar
- 2 Tbs. unsalted butter, softened
- 4 Tbs. Half & Half, at room temperature
- 1 C. granulated sugar, divided (1/3 C. for each of three colors)
- Yellow, green, and purple food coloring
- Measure the vanilla yogurt, sugar, butter, and salt into a small saucepan; warm it over medium heat until the butter melts--stirring constantly—ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil. Set the hot yogurt mixture aside until it cools to about 100 degrees F.
- When the yogurt mixture is nearly to temperature, measure the warm water in a glass measuring cup, and stir the yeast and honey into it. Let it rest for about 5 minutes to give the yeast time to perk up in the water and feed on the honey. The mixture should become very frothy.
- At this time, scoop 2 cups of the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the yogurt mixture, yeast mixture, beaten eggs to the bowl, and stir it all together on low speed until combined. The batter will be very wet and sticky. Add the remaining flour to the bowl, ½ cup at a time, stirring well between each addition until a soft dough forms and mostly cleans the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium, and “knead” the dough with the dough hook for 2 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.
- Pour a teaspoon of canola oil into a large glass bowl. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl, roll it into a ball, place it in the oiled bowl, and flip the dough over by hand to coat it with the oil. Place a sheet of plastic wrap tightly over the bowl, and then cover the bowl with a clean dish towel. Set the covered bowl in a warm, draft free place, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk. (About 1 hour.) I like to place my covered bowl of dough inside the microwave oven, and close the door. The inside of the microwave works well to keep the dough’s environment warm and free from drafts. (The microwave should not be turned on or otherwise used during this time.)
- While the dough is rising, prepare the filling by creaming together the softened cream cheese, granulated sugar, and ground cinnamon until creamy. Blend in the egg and vanilla extract, beating until smooth. Set the filling aside while the dough continues to rise until doubled.
- Once the dough has doubled in bulk, lightly depress the dough with one hand to release some air. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 16-inch by 10-inch rectangle. Spread the cream cheese filling evenly over the dough, leaving a ½ -inch margin all around. Lightly brush the clean margin with water. Beginning with the long side farthest away from you, tightly roll the dough lengthwise to form a log. Pinch the edges along the length of the dough to seal the roll. Bring the ends together to form a large circle, pinching the ends together to seal the shape. Carefully transfer the cake, seam side down, onto a half sheet pan that has been lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Reshape the roll into a circle, if necessary. Cover the cake roll with a clean towel, and allow it to rise in a warm, draft free area for 20 minutes, or until nearly doubled in bulk.
- As the dough rises for the second time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Once risen, bake the cake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is a deep golden brown. Transfer the cake from the baking sheet to a cooling rack, and allow it to cool slightly for 20 minutes.
- While the cake is cooling a bit, prepare the icing by creaming the butter into the powdered sugar, and then thinning it with the Half & half. The icing should be smooth. Leave the icing out at room temperature until it’s time to ice the cake.
- Once the icing has been made, prepare the colored sugars by dividing the sugar evenly between three small bowls, and then adding enough food coloring to the sugar to reach the desired colors. I find that using a small spoon to stir and press the coloring into the sugar works well. However, the sugars may also be colored by dividing the sugar evenly between plastic zip top bags, adding the desired colors to each bag, closing the bags and shaking them until the sugar is evenly colored.
- After the initial 20 minute cooling period, pour or spread the icing over the top of the cake, and allow it time to finish oozing down the sides. Before the icing is entirely set, sprinkle the sugars in an alternating stripe pattern over the top. Once the icing has completely set, carefully transfer it to a serving plate. The cake is then ready to slice and serve.
Historical Note: tradition dictates that a small plastic “baby” should be inserted somewhere into the bottom of the cake, symbolic of the Christ child. The person receiving the slice of cake containing the baby inside is said to have good luck, and is obligated to make the cake for the celebration the following year. The best time to insert the “baby” is after the initial cooling period, but before applying the icing and sugars.