Want to eat king cake this Mardi Gras, but don't want to fork out a lot of money to buy one? Make one from scratch! The sweet cinnamon filling and the tangy lemon icing make this a sweet treat your whole family will love!
If you love sweet breads, you'll definitely want to try my recipes for Mexican Rosca de Reyes and Spanish Roscón de Reyes.
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King cake's origins lie in Europe, where many countries have their own unique Epiphany dessert, like the French galette du rois (a puff pastry disc filled with almond frangipane). The concept of king cake was brought to Louisiana by French immigrants in 1870.
Over time, king cakes made in Louisiana were influenced by the Mexican rosca de reyes/Spanish roscón de reyes, which are both yeast breads in a ring shape decorated with dried fruit. Eventually, it become the ring-shaped yeast bread filled with cinnamon sugar or cinnamon cream cheese that is popular at Mardi Gras today.
Why This Recipe Works
- It's made with bread flour. The higher protein content in bread flour creates more gluten in the dough, giving the king cake a better rise and fluffier texture.
- Use the windowpane test to see if it's kneaded enough. (See the recipe card for a description of this technique.) Proper kneading will ensure a good texture and rise when it's baked.
- You'll know for sure when it's cooked. No more burnt or underbaked breads! Use a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature of the loaf: it should be 190°F.
- The bread cools completely before topping with the glaze. This prevents the glaze from running off or being absorbed into the bread.
Let's talk about the key ingredients in this king cake recipe. Fortunately, you'll be able to get all of these from your local grocery store; there's no need to place an online order!
- Flour: Make sure to use good quality bread flour. It has a higher protein content than all-purpose, which will make the bread rise higher and have a fluffier, chewier texture.
- Yeast: I recommend using fast-action yeast (aka instant yeast), as then you can skip the 10-minute blooming in warm water and sugar that is required for active dry.
- Fats: I use a mixture of lard and butter for the ideal flavor and texture of the bread.
How to Make
- Heat the butter, lard, and milk together until the fats have melted and the mixture is warm. Let the mixture cool to 115°F. Pour the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer and add the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl. Mix each one in with your finger.
2. Mix in the sugar, eggs, and lemon zest until blended. Gradually pour in the milk mixture and mix until a sticky dough has formed.
3. Knead with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky to the touch. The dough should also pass the windowpane test (see the recipe card for an explanation of this).
4. Shape the dough into a ball and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
5. Mix together the brown sugar and cinnamon until well blended. Punch down the dough and roll it into a 24x8-inch rectangle. Brush the melted butter over the dough and sprinkle the sugar-cinnamon mixture on top. Roll into a log from one of the long sides, pinch the seam and ends to seal, and form into a circle. Squeeze the ends together tightly, then place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
6. Cover the king cake with plastic wrap and let it prove in a warm place until puffy and springy to the touch, about 45-60 minutes.
7. Bake the king cake at 375°F for 30 minutes, covering it with aluminum foil after 20 minutes if it's getting too dark. The king cake should have an internal temperature of 190°F on a meat thermometer. Let it cool completely on a wire rack.
8. Sift the icing sugar into a bowl and gradually mix in the lemon juice and milk to make a thick but pourable icing. Spread the icing on top and let it set for 3 minutes.
9. Sprinkle the colored sugar on top, using pieces of plastic wrap to keep the sections separate as you sprinkle.
10. Hide a baby Jesus figurine (affiliate) in the king cake, then slice and serve.
In Louisiana, king cake is a circular sweet bread filled with cinnamon sugar or cream cheese and decorated with white icing and green, yellow, and purple sugar. Sometimes, it includes raisins or candied fruit as well.
Whoever finds baby Jesus is supposed to bring the king cake for the next Mardi Gras party. Long ago, finding the baby meant you would be king for the day.
King cake is made to honor the three wise men (kings) who visited young Jesus, and is traditionally served on Epiphany (January 6) and up until Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (the day before Lent starts). It's a variation of the Spanish bread rosca de reyes.
For many years, king cake has been popular around Mardi Gras, and is usually decorated with green, yellow, and purple sugar to commemorate Carnival. The colors represent faith (green), power (gold), and justice (purple). The king cake's round shape symbolizes a crown.
New Orleans king cake tastes much like a cinnamon roll. I've added lemon to this recipe, which makes it all the more delightful!
- King cake can be served as dessert at a meal, or as a snack at any time of day.
- Serve with a beverage, such as hot chocolate, tea, or coffee.
- It's served anytime during Mardi Gras season, which lasts from Epiphany (January 6) to Fat Tuesday (the day before Lent starts).
Leftovers: It tastes the freshest withing 24 hours of baking. Don't store king cake in the fridge, as it will make it go stale. If you need to keep it for longer than a day or two, freeze it.
Freezing: Cut the king cake into slices first for ease, then seal it tightly in a zip-top freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost in the microwave or at room temperature.
- Speed up the proving time by putting the dough in a cold oven and placing a pan of boiling water on the shelf below the king cake dough.
- Want a gooey filling? Increase the brown sugar to ¾ cup (150g) and use 4 tablespoons (57g) of softened, unsalted butter. Add an extra teaspoon of cinnamon if you like.
- If you want to bake the plastic baby Jesus in the king cake, it should be fine and not melt. There's no need to wrap it in foil. (The bread's internal temperature only goes up to 190°F, so it's nowhere near as hot as the 375°F oven!)
- If you're serving this to young children, keep the baby Jesus separate so it's not a choking hazard.
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Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe
For the Dough
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 3 tablespoons lard
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 4 cups + 2 tablespoons bread flour
- 2 teaspoons fine salt
- 3 teaspoons fast-action yeast
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, from 1 medium lemon
For the Filling
- ½ cup light brown sugar, packed
- 2 teaspoons ground Saigon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
For the Icing
- 1 ½ cups icing sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2-3 tablespoons milk
- Green, yellow, and purple colored sugar for decoration
Making the Dough
- Dump the butter, lard, and milk into a small saucepan and put over medium heat until melted. Let the mixture cool to 115°F.
- Pour the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl, then stir in each one with your finger.
- Add the sugar, butter, lard, eggs, and lemon zest and mix on low speed until combined, then gradually trickle in the warm milk until a soft, slightly sticky dough has formed.
- Switch attachments to the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes, until the dough is smooth and isn't sticky to the touch. It should also pass the windowpane test. Check this by breaking off a lump of dough and stretching it between your hands to form a windowpane. If the dough can stretch to be translucent without breaking, it's kneaded enough; if not, knead for a minute longer and check again.
- Shape into a ball, place in a buttered bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside to prove in a warm place until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Shaping the King Cake
- Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon until well blended.
- Punch down the dough, then roll out to a 24x8-inch rectangle. Brush with the melted butter and spread the cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly on top.
- Roll up the dough tightly from one of the long sides, pinching the seam and ends to seal. Shape the log into a circle, squeezing the ends firmly together.
- Place on a 11x17-inch cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with plastic wrap and let prove again in a warm place until springy to the touch, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Baking & Decorating the King Cake
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Stack the cookie sheet on top of another one and bake at 375°F for 30 minutes, until the loaf is golden brown and has an internal temperature of 190°F. Let cool completely on a wire rack, about 45 minutes.
- Sift the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with the lemon juice and milk to form a thick icing. Spread it on top of the cooled king cake and let it set for 3 minutes.
- Sprinkle with purple, yellow, and green sugar to decorate. Use pieces of plastic wrap to keep the sections distinct.
- Slice the king cake and serve at room temperature with butter. Don't forget to place a baby Jesus beside the cake!
- Always use bread flour, not all-purpose, for the best rise and texture.
- Slow rising dough? Put it in a cold oven with a pan of boiling water on the shelf underneath.
- For a gooey filling, use ¾ cup (150g) of brown sugar and 4 tablespoons (57g) of softened butter. Feel free to add an extra teaspoon of cinnamon.
- Let it cool completely before putting on the glaze, or it may absorb it!
- Keep the baby Jesus separate so it's not a choking hazard for young children.
Serving sizes and nutritional information are only an estimate and may vary from your results.
This recipe was originally published on February 19, 2019, and was updated on February 22, 2020. It was republished on January 13, 2022 with refreshed photos, expanded information, and rearranged content.
Is there a substitute for lard?
You can use an equal weight of butter if you prefer.
King cake is an awesome treat to have this time of year. The cinnamon swirl and lemon icing and sugar are divine. I especially like how it smells!
Thank you, Beth! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it!
The lemon in the icing tastes delicious. The bread is fluffy and perfectly golden, and makes my mouth water. The cinnamon adds a nice flavor. I love the bright colors in the decoration!
Thank you, Alex! King cake is such a lovely cinnamon bread.