King cake is a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras dessert. It’s a must-have at any Mardi Gras Party!
I started making this Mardi Gras king cake recipe about 25 years ago, My very Southern girlfriend, Sandy, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, sent me one from a very famous bakery in the New Orleans, during Mardi Gras. As a Southern California gal, I had no idea what king cake was. It is practically nonexistent in Southern California, at least the Southern, Mardi Gras version. There is a Mexican version called Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings) which is served on Epiphany. France celebrates with a Galette des Rois. (This King Cake recipe was originally published on February 4th, 2014 and has be updated to contain nutritional information. As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.)
What is King Cake?
King cake is a staple during the season, from Epiphany, (January 6th) to the beginning of Lent which is called “fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras. In the south, Mardi Gras is a season, and not just a day, like it is in the rest of the country. In preparation for Lent, many households would rid their pantries of eggs, sugar and butter, thus creating decadent pastries.
Do other cultures celebrate with king cake?
Many other countries celebrate Mardi Gras or Carnivale with similar sweets, like these Italian Bow Tie cookies that are popular in Italy.
In England, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated with thin pancakes. And of course we know how popular Carnival is in Brazil!
What do the colors on the king cake mean?
The festive dessert, which is basically a coffee cake ring with colored sugar. This version is filled with cinnamon cream cheese. However, you can can also use your favorite pie filling. The colored sugar represents Justice, (purple) Faith, (green) and Power, (gold). Traditionally a small plastic baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is tucked into the cooked cake for good luck. The recipient of the baby is responsible for baking the next King Cake.
Can the dough be made in advance?
Yes! Once I discovered Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Hertzberg and Francois, I adapted their Brioche dough for my King Cake. Make the dough one day (or up to 4 days before) and the cake the next. Here’s their olive oil bread recipe.
Can I use pre-made dough?
No. Unfortunately this is a brioche or sweetened dough. Although it’s not particularly sweet, there is some honey in the dough which you won’t find in store-bought bread dough.
Although this recipe makes one large cake, you could make two smaller ones as well. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
How to make a King Cake
Roll the dough out into a long thin rectangle, about 1/4″ thick.
Spread filling to within 1″ all around. Roll into a long log, lengthwise and form into an oval or circle. Pinch the ends of the dough together and tuck it under.
Let cool completely before drizzling the glaze over the top. Sprinkle with alternating bands of gold, green and purple sanding sugar.
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Cream Cheese Filling
- Scald the milk. Add to standing mixer. The butter should cool the milk enough to activate the yeast, but If you're not sure, test the temperature using a thermometer. It should be between 105 and 110 degrees F. Add butter, honey, salt and yeast. Add eggs and mix until blended.
- Add the flour slowly, until dough comes together in a ball.
- Place dough in a large bowl and cover. Allow to rest at room temperature until dough rises and collapses, approximately 2 hours.
- Dough is ready to use at this point, but can also be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for about 15 for easier rolling.
- Meanwhile, make the filling. In a mixer combine cream cheese, sugars, vanilla and cinnamon until combined.
Finishing the King Cake
- On a lightly floured board, roll dough into a long, thin rectangle approximately 12" x 18".
- Spread filling up to 1" from sides of dough. Roll dough lengthwise away from you.
- Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Tucking ends under to form an oval. Cover loosely with a clean cloth and let rise in a warm spot until double, about 45 minutes.
- Bake at 375 degrees F. for 35-40 minutes, or until deep golden brown. The bottom of the bread will sound hollow when tapped.
- For glaze, combine confectioner's sugar, vanilla and water until thick drizzle consistency.
- Allow to cool on a wire rack to room temperature. Tuck a small plastic baby into the underside of the cake. Drizzle or spread glaze over the top and sprinkle with alternating bands of colored sugar.
What else can you serve at a Mardi Gras party?
If you’re planning a Mardi Gras celebration between now and Lent, here are some suggestions.
Spicy Confetti Shrimp
If you can’t go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, how about making classic Beignets?