Before I knew Mardi Gras was associated with copious alcohol consumption or showing breasts for beads, it was all about the cake.
Tucked away in the loft of a Lutheran church, my grade-school French class would indulge in yeasty cinnamon cake every snowy February. I would cross my fingers under my desk, hoping to be crowned queen, as everyone carefully devoured a piece of the king cake, searching for the whole almond.
I never got to be queen, but that's okay, because at least I could drown my sorrows in a cinnamon roll like cake glazed in sugary sweet icing and sprinkled with bold gold, green and purple sprinkles.
King cake is eaten in many countries between Twelfth Night and/or Epiphany (the night of January 5/January 6) and Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Lent). It is meant to draw the kings to the Epiphany. Inside the cake is a baby figurine, and whom ever receives the baby is crowned the king or queen.
There are many different kinds of king cake. Each country represents the cake in slightly different ways. The French version is made from puff pastry and frangipane. The king cake in Spain is often decorated with dried and candied fruits. The American Mardi Gras king cake is typically a brioche or cinnamon roll-type dough that is drizzled in sweet icing that is either colored gold, green and purple or sprinkles are added to color it. Many bakeries in Louisiana and Mississippi offer king cakes with a variety of fillings (typically a cream cheese flavored sweet filling) and now offer them for holidays surrounding Mardi Gras. Candy cane-shaped king cake, anyone?
For king cake this year, I made mine like my grade school French teacher used to make it -- an enriched, cinnamon-spiced dough with orange zest and topped with icing and boldly colored sanding sugar. I braided it and baked it as a loaf, though circular -- representing the crown -- is a very popular shape. Some do bake them as loaves (we almost always had a loaf).
My husband and I have been in great debate about our king cake, as he remembers his having a baby figurine in it, while we always had a nut in lieu of the plastic baby. I placed a pecan half in our cake this year, as I can tuck it in the dough and bake it into the cake, plus I don't have to worry about anyone chomping down on a plastic figurine.
Enjoy with friends while celebrating Mardi Gras, and don't forget to pick up a crown for the king or queen. Though I can't say I'd show my breasts if someone offered to throw me some cheap plastic beads, I would more than likely do so if they offered me this cake.
King Cake Recipe:
Cake: 8 ounces Whole Milk, warmed 2 TBSP. Active Dry Yeast 8 ounces Unsalted Butter, Melted ½ cup + 3 TBSP. Granulated Sugar Zest of ½ an orange 1 tsp. of Vanilla Paste or Extract 5 Egg Yolks 4 cups All-purpose Flour 1 ½ tsp. Sea Salt 2 tsp. Cinnamon A few gratings of Nutmeg A pinch of Cardamom 1 whole Almond or Pecan Half
Glaze: About 1 ¼ cups Powdered Sugar Juice from 1 Orange 2 TBSP. Unsalted Butter, Room Temperature
Instructions for Cake:
Warm the milk in a saucepan, until it's just warmed to the touch around 100 degrees. Remove from heat and whisk in the yeast. Allow the mixture to sit for about 5 minutes or until the yeast gets a bit frothy.
Melt butter and allow to cool slightly. Add your vanilla in to the butter as well as your orange zest.
Place all dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, and spices) in the bowl of a mixer. Using the dough hook, on a low speed, begin to add in the wet ingredients, starting with the milk and yeast, moving on to the butter mixture, finishing with the egg yolks. Once everything has been added and the flour has started to absorb all the wet ingredients, increase the speed of the mixer.
You want to get your dough to "window pane," which is a term that refers to taking a piece of dough and stretching it from the middle outwards. You are looking to develop a "dough window," essentially, that will allow light to come through. You want to create this dough window without it ripping, which is the point that you know your dough has built up enough gluten, so that it will be able to hold the air bubbles that the yeast creates, causing your dough to rise. In your mixer, this usually will take 8-10 minutes, if you knead by hand, it is probably 12-15 minutes.
Once your dough is to window pane, roll it into a ball, and place it in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl and place your dough somewhere warm and allow it to proof for 1 ½ - 2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Once doubled, turn your dough out on to the table. Using a bench knife cut your dough into three even pieces. Roll the dough out like a snake. Fold the three ends together, and tuck them under. Then set about braiding your dough. Somewhere along the way while you are braiding your dough, tuck the nut into the dough, making sure it cannot be seen. When you reach the end, fold together the three end strands, and tuck under. Place your braided loaf or circle onto a greased parchment lined pan. Spray the top with pan spray and cover with plastic wrap, allow it to rise again for about 30-40 minutes, until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Egg wash your proofed king cake. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown.
Allow the cake to cool completely. Glaze and top with gold, green and purple sprinkles.
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Instructions for Glaze:
Whisk everything together. Adjust as needed, to get a glaze that is thin enough to drizzle or paint on with a pastry brush, yet thick enough to hold to the cake and not run off. If your glaze is too thick, thin with some more orange juice. If it is too thin, add a bit more powdered sugar.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.