This Tuesday, known as Fat Tuesday, was the culmination of Mardi Gras, a unique holiday full of floats, parades and fun that is celebrated in New Orleans and other places around the country. Though far from the parades routes in the famed Crescent City, I have been lucky to experience my own local version of this annual tradition thanks to my dear friend Judy. Judy is a Yadkin County native, but lived for many years in New Orleans and she brought these wonderful Mardi Gras traditions back home with her.
Each year her at her church she hosts a grand Mardi Gras party complete with beads, jambalaya, king cake and more. An active member of my community theater group, Judy has hosted Mardi Gras parties for us as well.
Aside from the flamboyant masks, costumes and sparkly beads that accompany Mardi Gras, my favorite part is the food. The dessert in particular is a favorite thing of mine. King cake is a traditional dessert associated with Mardi Gras. In light of the elaborate nature of Mardi Gras, king cake is actually a very simple dough-based dessert usually with a filling of some sort. The history of these cakes is actually religious in nature. The cake is in honor of the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus. In New Orleans, king cakes are typically served from Epiphany (12 days after Christmas) on through Mardi Gras. Baked inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby representing the baby Jesus. The tradition is that the party guest who receives the lucky piece of cake containing the baby is then responsible for hosting the next party or providing the next king cake.
I have been the recipient of this lucky piece of cake on several occasions but have never followed through with the tradition as I did not know how to make a king cake. Now I will no longer be able to use that as an excuse. A few weeks ago Judy came over and taught me step by step how to make this delicious confection.
While simple in nature, the baking of a king cake is quite time consuming as it requires time to make dough and allow it to rise. Working the dough is quite a process as well. I have a tendency to be fearful of dough recipes as I’m always afraid of overworking the dough and making it tough. Judy had to instruct me to be a little more forceful in my kneading in order to get the dough to the right consistency.
Once the dough has been thoroughly kneaded and allowed to rise, it is then rolled flat to be filled. For our king cake making day, Judy and I made a cream-cheese-filled king cake and a cinnamon filled. Judy said that fruit filling is also an option. Once the dough is filled and rolled into an oval shape, it must then be allowed to rise again before placing the plastic baby under one edge of the dough and baking it. Once cooled, the cake is then covered in a simple powdered-sugar-based icing and decorated with purple, green and gold sprinkles, the traditional colors associated with Mardi Gras. The colors are said to represent justice, faith and power. I admit putting on the sprinkles was my favorite part of the process, well aside from eating it that is!
As we were making the cakes I thought the cream cheese filled would be my favorite, but I actually like the cinnamon filled just as much. My recommendation is to make both and have a slice of each, alternating bites between the cream cheese and the cinnamon. The thought also crossed my mind to try combining the fillings the next time I make them. The question remains, will I be brave enough to attempt making king cake without Judy’s assistance? The recipe is below if you want to give it a try!
Judy’s New Orleans King Cake
(Makes two medium sized king cakes)
• 1/4 cup butter
• 1 16 oz container sour cream
• 1/2 or less cup sugar
• 1 tsp salt
• 2 envelopes active dry yeast
• 1 tsp sugar
• 1/2 cup warm water (100 – 110 degrees)
• 2 eggs
• 6 cups all purpose or bread flour
• 1 tsp ground nutmeg
• 1 tsp. dried lemon peel
Cream Cheese Filling:
• 1 or 2 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened (If making both king cakes cream cheese filled use two packs cream cheese, if doing the other as cinnamon filled, just one cream cheese will suffice.)
• 1 egg
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 2 tsp vanilla
• 1/4 cup softened butter
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 11/2 tsp cinnamon
• 1 to 11/2 cups powdered sugar
• 1/2 tsp almond flavoring
• purple, green, gold sugar sprinkles
1. Cook first four ingredients in a saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts. Cool mixture to 100 to 110 degrees.
2. Dissolve yeast and one teaspoon sugar in 1/2 cup warm water in a large bowl; let stand five minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine yeast, butter mixture, eggs, nut meg, lemon peel and two cups flour. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer for two minutes or until smooth. Gradually stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough.
3. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic; about 10 minutes. Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees), free from drafts, for one hour or until doubled in bulk.
4. Using an electric mixture, mix cream cheese until smooth. Add egg and blend well. Add sugar, salt and vanilla and mix until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
5. Punch dough down; divide in half. Turn one portion out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll to 28 x10 inch rectangle.
For the cream cheese filled cake, spread half of cream cheese mixture on dough, leaving a small 1/2 to 1 inch margin all around.
For the cinnamon filled, brush dough with softened butter, leaving 1/2 to 1 inch margin, then sprinkle surface with sugar and cinnamon mixture.
Roll dough, jellyroll fashion, starting at long side. Place dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with remaining dough and cream cheese or cinnamon mixture.
6. Place a small plastic king cake baby underneath the king cake. Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 20 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
7. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden.
8. In a small bowl gradually add small amounts of milk to powdered sugar and stir until icing is the desired consistency. Add almond flavoring if desired.
9. When cool, decorate with thick white icing glaze and bands of purple, green and gold sugar sprinkles in alternating colors using a N-S-E-W fashion or as other desired pattern.
Kitsey Burns Harrison is a reporter for The Yadkin Ripple, here she shares her musings on food, life and love. She can be reached at 336-518-3049 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.