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!