As we are coming up on Mardi Gras week, there will be some bakeries that have their king cakes in the display cases soon. To be historically accurate, though, Carnival season starts at Twelfth Night. Yes, child - the party is that long (with occasional breaks for work and sleep) in Louisiana.
New Orleans is a city of great food, from many cultures. The king cake is generally said to have arrived in NOLA from France in the 1870’s. Decorated in purple, gold, and green, (not red, gold, and green, you 80’s kids) the colors signify Justice with purple, Faith with green, and Power with gold. Even the name is linked to Twelfth night, or Three Kings Day, or Epiphany - whatever you call it. January 6 is the date on the calendar when the Magi are traditionally said to have found the infant Jesus.
This is why there is a little plastic baby hidden in the cake after it is baked, not some cannibal ritual, as a past acquaintance tried to insist. (Okay, technically, the celebration of the Eucharist is a cannibalistic ritual, but you are not supposed to EAT the baby.) As this person also forbore to celebrate a heathen holiday such as Halloween in favor of a wholesome Harvest Festival, complete with a king of the harvest and a queen of the corn, I just shook my head at them. Yeah, we’ll be getting back to that story in October.
Traditionally, everyone KNEW there was a baby (or coin, or bean) hidden in the cake, and took small, careful bites of their slices until it was found. Just in case, you will want to warn your guests if there is such a surprise in their cake. Some neighborhoods also have the tradition that whoever finds the baby, in addition to being blessed with good luck, is responsible for hosting the next party, or at least bringing the next cake into the office.
This year, it’s a pretty short carnival season, though not the shortest it could be. In 2016, Easter Sunday is 27 March, making the first day of Lent 10 February. The reason for all of this liturgical calendar chatter is Carnival, Carnevale or Mardi Gras are all tied to Fat Tuesday, the last day to have everything good eaten and out of the pantry before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the days of fasting.
Most of the older recipes make a sweet and light bread pastry, with cinnamon, sugar and nuts braided or rolled into the ring. I found one with raisins as well, but that ingredient has not been a favorite in baked goods at our house. Some of the modern recipes add a cream cheese filling instead of the cinnamon and nuts.
This recipe is a blend of several of the older styles of king cakes. While you can use all-purpose flour if you do not have bread flour, you really do need to use a fresh lime or lemon. First, you need the oils with the zest; the dried stuff is just steps away from sawdust. Secondly, bottled lime or lemon juice is only used when you are cooking for people you hate.
Yield Serves 10-12
Total time: about 4 hours
For the cake:
1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry yeast (a little less than three packets, if you don’t buy in bulk)
3 ¾ cups bread flour
1 cup melted butter
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon grated fresh lime zest (if the limes don’t look good at the store, get a lemon instead)
3 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
½ cup dark brown sugar
For the decoration:
2 cups powdered sugar
¼ cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice (again, lemon if the limes are poorly)
Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
1 plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking (or use a bean if you don’t happen to have a spare baby in your pantry)
Pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
About five minutes later you should have bubbles on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam (if not, your yeast is dead, and you might need to repeat step one). If you have positive signs of life, whisk in the butter, eggs, and vanilla. Add the remaining flour and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 to 15 minutes). Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease top.
Cover and let rise in a warm place (at least 85°F), free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Punch down dough, and roll into a rectangle, aiming to create a 2:1 ratio (about 24”x12”) rectangle. Spread the butter evenly on the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Stir together the lime zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar, and sprinkle evenly over butter.
Roll up the dough along the long edge, jelly-roll fashion. Place the dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Lay the ring on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes. Lining the cookie sheet with baking parchment helps if your cookie sheet is not as nonstick as it used to be.
Once it's doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until it is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
While the cake is cooling, pull together the glaze; whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lime juice in a bowl until it is smooth and spreadable.
If the glaze is too thick, add a bit more milk.
If it's a touch too loose, add a little more sugar.
Once the cake has cooled, spread the glaze over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars in alternating bands while the glaze is still wet.
Transfer the cake to the serving platter, and tuck the plastic baby into the underside of the cake.
Don’t freak out about all the spare the egg whites, they freeze for later. I have an ice cube tray for freezing small portions of herbs, wine, stock, and such, and one egg white per compartment works quite well. Once they’re solid (usually in a day or so, if your freezer is working properly) transfer them to an air-tight container or freezer bag. When you want to use them, thaw them in the refrigerator the night before.
If you’re going to use them for meringues or something similar, let them sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before beating them, they will achieve greater volume. You do want your egg whites to go to eleven, don’t you?
Likewise, you might have some leftover lime or lemon juice. Limes average two tablespoons of juice each, while lemons run to three. I will, if I haven’t used the extra in my tea, also freeze the juice. Just remember which end of the ice tray has the juice, and which has the egg whites, and bag them separately when they are solid.
"History of King Cakes." History of King Cakes. Accessed January 29, 2016. https://www.randazzokingcake.com/pages/
"History of King Cakes." History of King Cakes. Accessed January 29, 2016. http://www.neworleansshowcase.com/
"History of King Cake | King Cakes New Orleans | Traditional King Cake." Mardi Gras Day History of King Cakes Comments. Accessed January 29, 2016. http://www.mardigrasday.com/king-cakes/