Mardi Gras King Cake - You Know Dat!

{Mr. Luz's second guest post tackles yet another baking task - it's a little late for King Cake season, which ends tomorrow night at midnight, so bookmark this one for next year -it's a keeper)

Squeaking in just before Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday comes this recipe for King Cake, adapted from Emeril Lagasse's recipe that can be found all over the internet (why Emeril Lagasse has become synonymous with New Orleans cuisine is somewhat of a mystery, considering he is originally from Fall River, MA.  Of course, he used to be Executive Chef at Commander's Palace in Nola, Home of the 25 Cent Martini Friday Lunch, so he can't be all that bad.  Ask Mr. Luz about his Gentlemen's Quarterlies during law school, and he'll regale you with purple drank boozy haziness.  Seriously, they only charge .25 cents for martinis EVERY FRIDAY* - *with purchase of entrée).  Mr. Luz has tweaked the recipe subtly, primarily because the oven chez nous is a landlord special, it's been snowing a lot here lately and grocery stores have been low on basic necessities, and frankly, recipes are like maps: half the time, if you don't already know where you are going, you won't likely get there if you follow the map religiously (Google Maps, I'm talking to you!).  Actually, you probably shouldn't follow anything religiously, but that's a topic for another blog....

King Cake is basically brioche bread formed into a circle with a sweet cream cheese filling - which means that it ranges from sublimely light and flaky to downright concretinous: spackled with too much lemon icing and pavéed with 1/4 inch thick bark-rinds of sickeningly sweet sugar sprinkles.  In New Orleans, sadly, the vast majority of King Cake you are likely to encounter is supermarket-spawned, mass-produced shoe leather masquerading as King Cake.  Sure, Mardi Gras is all about masquerading, but the fraud perpetrated on the citizens of the Crescent City is frankly of Crying Game proportions, y'all.  We eat it because of the tradition, not because it tastes good.   A home-made King Cake, even in New Orleans, is a rarity, and you are sure to impress by making your own (unless you buy your King Cake from La Boulangerie on Magazine Street - they have both the traditional almond custard and puff pastry Galette Des Rois, as well as the Mediterranean brioche Nola-style King Cakes, and are light-years tastier than the supermarket fare).

What You'll Need: 

 *Stand Mixer with Bread Hook Attachment (seriously, you can make bread dough the easy way or the
    hard way, and without this basic equipment you'll get too frustrated if you've never made brioche
 * Large Glass Bowl for Dough Rising (you ought to have a set of these anyway, they are awesome)
 * Damp Kitchen Cloth or Saran Wrap to Cover Your Dough While It Rises
 * Standard-Size Sheet Pan (the biggest one that will fit in your oven)
 * Parchment Paper With Which to Line your Sheet Pan
 * Set of Measuring Cups
 * Set of Measuring Spoons
 * Two Sauce Pans (one to heat milk and one to melt butter, unless you have a microwave to melt     
 * Small Bowl to store Egg Yolks
 * Medium-Size Bowl to store flour
 * Cup to combine rest of dry ingredients


 * 2 packets active dry yeast
 * 1/2 cup granulated sugar
 * 1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
 * 1 cup warm milk (about 110°F)
 * 5 large egg yolks, at room temperature (use organic eggs if you can - the yolks are healthier and heartier - regular eggs are anemic and thin, and don't fluff as nicely)
 * 4 1/2 cups bleached all-purpose flour (I used unbleached and it turned out fine)
 * 2 teaspoons salt (I used sea salt, and again, it turned out nicely)
 * 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (I used dried, powdered nutmeg, but Mr. Luz is not a huge fan of medieval spices, use sparingly)
 * 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
 * 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
 * 1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature (there is no other cream cheese but Philly Phull Phat
    Cream Cheese - don't you dare use light!)
 * 4 cups confectioner's sugar (prolly too much by at least a 1/2 cup - I had a lot of extra icing)
 * 1 plastic king cake baby  (or Pagan Symbol of your choosing)
 * 1 cup crushed pecans or walnuts (skip the nuts if you are worried about allergies, but I like nuts)
 * 5 tablespoons milk, at room temperature
 * 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
 * Purple-, green-, and gold-tinted sugar sprinkles (New Orleans Mardi Gras Colors, but you can go
    crazy and make any color theme you like - I made a Black and Gold Saints Cake for our Super Bowl

The Construction:  If you are like me, you like to Get Organized before you bake.  Most recipes just jump you right in to the middle of the recipe, but Mr. Luz likes to lay every out everything in advance, assembly-line fashion.  Believe it or not, the timing of adding your ingredients to the mixer MATTERS, so you don't want to be fumbling about finding your ingredients as you struggle to keep up.

- Take your eggs out first and separate the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl so they can come to room temperature (unless you are a freak of nature who can separate yolks from whites while dangling the shells over your stand mixer.).
- Measure out your 4 1/2 cups of flour and put it in its own bowl.
- Combine your salt and nutmeg in a small cup.
- Melt your butter and warm up your milk (DO NOT try to warm up your milk by adding it to your melted butter.  This will result in disastrously dense dough - I know, because I tried.  I alluded to the problem of overcombining ingredients in my Apple Pie post - the key to any good dough is to NOT overmix - you want to try to combine the ingredients without synthesizing them into an overly homogenous whole).
- Get your stand mixer all set up. You'll want to be able to lift the mixer arm up out of the bowl at the end, so if you aren't familiar with that switch on the side, learn how to use it before you begin.
- Pour your vegetable oil into your glass bowl and roll it around the sides to coat. Take your cream cheese out of the refrigerator to let it soften.

Let The Dough-Making Begin!
- Add your two yeast packets and granulated sugar to the stand mixer bowl, and then add the melted butter and your warm milk. 
- Beat at low speed for about a minute. Without stopping the mixer, add the egg yolks (I dumped them in all at once), and then beat for 1 minute at medium-low speed. 
- Again, without stopping the mixer, add the flour.  Don't dump all the flour in at once - hold your bowl of flour at an angle and use a spoon to slowly push the flour into the bowl.  Next add the salt and nutmeg, but DO NOT simply dump it in all at once - sprinkle it evenly through the bowl - otherwise, you will end up with clumps of salty nutmeg throughout your dough)
- Beat until everything seems to have mixed together evenly. Then, increase the mixer speed to medium high until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball, and begins climbing up the dough hook (this is one of the coolest things about dough hooks. It's as if the dough comes alive and starts CLIMBING out of the BOWL!!  If the dough does not separate from the sides of the bowl, DO NOT ADD liquid like every recipe out there says.  This will only make the dough sticky and gooey and impossible to spread out later. Add small amounts of flour, a tablespoon at a time, along the edges of the bowl until the climbing alchemy begins.  Believe me, I tried adding warm water like the recipe says, and it was a complete mess every time. If the dough doesn't separate from the bowl, I guarantee you it's because it's too wet, not too dry). 

Dust your fingertips with some flour, and then tilt the mixer head up.  Use your fingers to pull the dough from the dough hook, letting it fall back into the mixer bowl. Tilt the dough ball out of the mixer bowl into your hand and then gently form it into a ball shape.  It doesn't have to be perfectly smooth or round - the rising will take care of that.  Put the dough ball into the glass bowl, and flip it over a few times to coat it with oil - this will prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl). Cover dough with plastic wrap or a wet kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for two hours, or until doubled in size (an obvious place to do this is in your oven set to Warm - but be careful, Warm on landlord-issue ovens can be too hot, and some newer electronic ovens don't even have a Warm setting. If in doubt, set to warm for 20 minutes, then turn the oven off for the remainder)

Filling: While the dough is rising, wash out your stand mixer bowl and attach the regular mixer attachment.  Combine the cream cheese, the nuts, the lemon zest, and 1 cup of the confectioner's sugar until everything is good and mixed together (you can also use brown sugar as pictured below).  Do not put it back in the fridge - it needs to be pliable for spreading on your dough. 
Next, line your sheet pan with parchment paper.

Also cover your work space with parchment paper, and then lightly powder your the parchment with a few pinches of confectioner's sugar (I prefer this to flour - it's sweeter, and dissolves into the dough more readily). Powder your fingertips as well.

When the dough has finished rising, remove the dough from the bowl and place it in the center of the parchment on your work surface.  Using your fingers, pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.  Try to keep an even thickness throughout.

 Next, spread the filling lengthwise over the bottom third of the dough, making sure to spread the filling all the way to BOTH ends of the rectangle (you don't want to end up with one section of the ring lacking filling).

PLACE YOUR BABY (or Pagan Symbol of Your Choosing) randomly in the bottom third of the dough NOW (I always, always forget to put the baby in there. It's like a crippling amnesia or something).
Pull the dough from the bottom edge and begin rolling it up over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together to seal up the tube.
Now, work one end of the roll open wide so that you can insert the opposite end into it like a sleeve (imagine stuffing one sleeve of your warmest sweatshirt into the opposite sleeve) Next, pull the dough into a cylinder and attach the ends.  

Now for the Fabu Flip.  Your seams are on the top, and you want them on the bottom, so place the sheet pan with the parchment paper over the top of your cylinder, centering it.  Grasp the corners of the parchment paper that is on your counter surface, and simply flip the whole thing over like a sandwich - then remove the bottom layer of parchment paper.  Presto Change-o!

Cover the ring with plastic wrap or a moist kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free place (again, your oven works nicely). Let the dough rise until doubled again in size, or about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Brush the top of the risen cake with 2 tablespoons of the milk. 
Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. (You'll have to really watch this one if you have a landlord-issue oven,  because at 25 minutes my cake wasn't nearly done.  I made another few of these in my neighbor's convection oven, and not only did they cook faster, they rose even more as it baked).

Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Icing: Combine the remaining 3 tablespoons of milk, the lemon juice, and the remaining 3 cups of  confectioner's sugar in a bowl. Stir to blend well. With a rubber spatula, spread the icing evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with your colored sugar crystals, alternating colors around the cake.

You can get crazy and make all kinds of other designs, like this one to the left, or the Super Bowl design below: 
Finally, a word on the "Who Gets The Baby" controversy.  In New Orleans, if you get the baby in your piece of King Cake, you are supposed to bring the next King Cake to the next social gathering. Mardi Gras season lasts from Epiphany (early January) until, well, Mardi Gras, so there is typically plenty of time for you to man up and bring one in.  Some skin-flint types wait until everyone has had their piece of cake to see if someone else will get the baby.  Not only does this go against the spirit of the thing, there is a moral to the story:

Baby-Jesus-Eating-Avoiders were designated "The Goat", and in ancient times if you played wait-and-see, you were ostracized from the community for an entire year.  Of course, those who were hesitant had good reason to prevaricate over their slice of the tasty pie.  It used to be that if you got the Pagan Symbol in your slice, you were made King for a Year, and could have sex with all of the village's virgins or some such awesomeness, after which you were promptly and summarily executed, and your blood poured over next year's crops to ensure a good harvest.  Nowadays, kids in France get to wear silly gold paper crowns that look like they came from Burger King instead of free sex for a year, and here in America you merely shoulder a vague obligation to bring the next cake.  Traditions used to have real consequences, I guess is the moral of the story.  And of course Mr. Luz is just making all of this up* because he is just annoyed that he almost ALWAYS gets the Baby, yet has never been offered a single virgin...

Happy Mardi Gras and We'll See You In New Orleans!!!


  1. It's amazing how king cake recipes differ. Mine only calls for one egg, but everything else is pretty similar (I do cinnamon filling tho)

  2. Heddy, that's the glory of recipes - you can tweak and alter and riff on other people's creatuions. It's like jazz!

  3. I am obsessive about all things homemade instead of storebought on all things except king cakes. All the homemade ones I've had paled starkly to bakery-bought. Haydel's, Boulangerie, Nona Randazzo's, Tastee Donut's (the McKenzie recipe), etc. etc. Of course Rouse's and Winn-Dixie's suck, but I had one on Super Bowl Sunday from a bakery on the West Bank that a friend bought at Robert's which ... let me just say it was so divine I'll be dreaming of it until next January 6. It was AMAZING.

    Sad I'll miss y'all tonight as you cavort about New Orleans!!