If you are not from the New Orleans are, you might be asking yourself “what is a King Cake?” A king cake is a brioche-style cake similar to a coffee cake that is served throughout the carnival season in New Orleans. The carnival season begins on the 12th Day of Christmas, the Epiphany (January 6), which is the day the three kings visited the Baby Jesus. It is believed that it took the three kings 12 days to find their way to the stable. The carnival season ends on Mardi Gras Day, which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
The king cake is circular, representing the circular path the three kings had to take to ward off King Herod, who was seeking them so that he could kill the Christ Child. The king cake is typically decorated with colored icing and/or sugar. The three colors are purple, green and gold, the colors of Mardi Gras, which represent justice, faith and power. I’ve also heard that the three colors represent the three gifts presented by the Magi (gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) Within each cake is hidden a small plastic doll, which represents the Baby Jesus. (In olden times, it used to be a porcelain doll, or a bean or pea.)
My introduction into making home-made king cakes came many years ago. I found a recipe and tried it out on my family. Geez almighty, it was horrible. It came out heavy and hard as a rock, so much so that they called it the King Rock. My other sister, Janice, told her office mates about it and they accused her of exaggerating – that it couldn’t possibly have been that bad. So, they asked me to make a cake for their office party. Much to my dismay, it was just as horrible, but everyone was so polite and complimentary so as not to hurt my feelings, but I knew it was a bomb. I hope to think that I have gotten a little better at it over the years, but it is still tricky. I continue to try out new recipes and techniques, as I continue my search for perfection.
The recipe below is a really good one. It produces a light, but moist cinnamon cake. A few pointers for success: You have to get the yeast at just the right temperature (105 to 115 degrees) and let it foam for at least 10 minutes. You have to be careful not to add too much flour and not to over knead it. The dough should be slightly sticky, but elastic and able to hold its own shape, but never firm.
Let rise until double in bulk.
This is what it looks like right out of the oven.
And that’s me with my cake.
You can do these in a variety of ways. You can divide the rectangle of dough into thirds and braid it like this. I rolled these strings in the cinnamon sugar to get it on the outside, rather than on the inside.
¼ cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1 tablespoon (1 package) dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
5 ¾ to 6 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1 cup sour cream
3 large eggs
finely grated zest of 1 lemon or orange
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
1 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons butter, melted
7 tablespoons hot water, more as needed
1/4 teaspoon almond flavoring