Want to eat king cake this Mardi Gras, but don't want to fork out a lot of money to buy one? The answer: make one from scratch. It's so much cheaper--and surprisingly simple! The sweet cinnamon filling swirled inside and the tangy lemon icing make this a sweet treat your whole family will love!
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What is king cake?
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.
What is the story behind it?
King cake is made to honor the three wise men (kings) who visited young Jesus, and is traditionally served on Epiphany (January 6). 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 bread's round shape symbolizes a crown.
Why do they put a baby in the king cake?
The baby represents Jesus, Who was a young child when the wise men visited Him.
What does it mean if you find the baby?
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.
When is king cake served?
It's is usually served from Epiphany (January 6) to Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the last day before Lent starts. Some people hold weekly parties throughout this time period to enjoy this sweet treat for as long as possible!
What does king cake taste like?
The New Orleans version tastes much like a cinnamon roll. I've added lemon to this recipe, which makes it all the more delightful!
How long does it last?
- It tastes the freshest withing 24 hours of baking.
- Don't store it 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.
Can you freeze it?
Absolutely! Cut it in pieces 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.
How to Make
Gather the ingredients for the bread dough.
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.
Mix in the sugar, eggs, and lemon zest until blended. Gradually pour in the milk mixture and mix until a sticky dough has formed.
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).
Shape the dough into a ball and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, measure out the filling ingredients: brown sugar, cinnamon, and melted butter.
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.
Cover the bread with plastic wrap and let it prove in a warm place until puffy and springy to the touch, about 45-60 minutes.
Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes, covering it with aluminum foil after 20 minutes if it's getting too dark. The baked loaf should have an internal temperature of 190 F on a meat thermometer. Let it cool completely on a wire rack.
Get the ingredients for the icing (lemon juice, milk, icing sugar) and the three colored sugars for decorating.
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.
Sprinkle the colored sugar on top, using pieces of plastic wrap to keep the sections separate as you sprinkle.
- Be sure to use bread flour and not all-purpose flour for a better rise and chewier texture.
- Use fast-action yeast so you don't have to let it bloom in warm water like with active dry.
- Speed up the rising (proving) time by putting the dough in a cold oven and placing a pan of boiling water on the shelf below the dough. This is especially helpful during the wintertime or if you're working in a cold kitchen.
- Roll the dough into a large rectangle (24x8 inches) to create a beautifully swirled interior.
- 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 a strong cinnamon flavor.
- Let it cool completely before putting on the icing. A warm king cake will soak up the glaze.
- 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.
Other Cinnamon Breads You'll Love
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King cake, a delicious variation of cinnamon rolls, is served at Mardi Gras and Epiphany. You don’t have to go to Louisiana to enjoy this soft, fluffy bread with a cinnamon filling and lemon icing. Making this traditional New Orleans dessert from scratch is actually really easy!
For the Bread Dough
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (43g)
- 3 tablespoons lard (30g)
- ¾ cup whole milk (177 ml)
- 4 cups + 2 tablespoons bread flour (500g)
- 2 teaspoons fine salt (10g)
- 3 teaspoons fast-action yeast (10g)
- ¼ cup granulated sugar (50g)
- 2 large eggs + 1 egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 1 medium lemon)
For the Filling
- ½ cup light brown sugar, packed (100g)
- 2 teaspoons ground Saigon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted (14g)
For the Icing
- 1 ½ cups icing sugar (165g)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2-3 tablespoons milk
- Green, yellow, and purple colored sugar for decoration
Making the Dough (25 min + 1 hr proving)
- 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 (15 min + 45 min proving)
- 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 (30 min baking + 45 min cooling + 15 min decorating)
- 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.
- Category: Bread
- Method: Baked
- Cuisine: American
Keywords: recipe, new orleans
This recipe was originally published on February 19, 2019.