King cake is a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras dessert. It’s like a coffee cake with filling, colored sugar, and icing. This recipe for king cake is a must-have at any Mardi Gras party!
What is King Cake?
The king cake for Mardi Gras is basically a coffee cake ring with colored sugar and icing. This version is filled with cinnamon cream cheese. You can also use your favorite pie filling for even more flavor!
King cake, also known as three kings cake, is one of the most iconic Mardi Gras desserts, and a staple during the season. The celebration runs from Epiphany (January 6th) to the beginning of Lent, which is the day after 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.
My very Southern girlfriend, Sandy, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, sent me one from a very famous bakery in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras.
I fell in love with it and have been making this recipe for Mardi Gras king cake ever since!
Mardi Gras King Cake in Other Cultures
Many cultures and countries celebrate Mardi Gras or Carnavale with a version of the king cake. There is a Mexican version called Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings) which is served on Epiphany, and France celebrates with a Galette des Rois.
In the south, Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday,” 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.
Along with the king cake, other cultures celebrate 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 colored sugar for a traditional recipe for king cake includes, and represents, purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power).
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 King Cake 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 king cake dough one day (or up to 4 days) before and the cake the next. Here’s the Fat Tuesday king cake dough recipe.
Can I Use Pre-Made Dough to Make King Cake?
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 king cake recipe makes one large cake, you could use it to make two smaller mini king cakes. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
How to Make a Fat Tuesday King Cake
Roll the Fat Tuesday cake 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 it cool completely before drizzling the glaze over the top. Sprinkle with alternating bands of gold, green and purple sanding sugar.
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- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 package yeast
- 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup butter
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Cream Cheese Filling
- 12 ounces cream cheese softened
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons water or milk
- sanding sugar purple, gold and green
- 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.
- Use a thermometer for best results.
- Dough should be shiny and smooth. If dough is too sticky add additional flour 1 Tablespoon at a time.
What Else Can You Serve at a Mardi Gras Party?
In addition to Fat Tuesday king cake, you can take your Mardi Gras celebration to the next level with these suggestions.
If Mardi Gras king cake doesn’t fill your need for sweets, and you can’t go to New Orleans, how about making classic Beignets?
Now I want to invite people over and have a Mardi Gras party!!! This looks really fun. I had no idea it’s made from a yeasted dough. Thanks.
Such a fun party too!
I’ve always wanted to make a cake for Mardi Gras but I’ve been waiting for a recipe like this. I can’t wait to try it.
Such a fun dessert to make!
I can’t believe it’s already time to start thinking about KING Cakes and Mardi Gras! Looks like you’ve really perfected this over 25 years!
yes! While most of the country just celebrates one day, Mardi Gras, (fat tuesday), the south celebrates for a whole season from Epiphany to mardi gras!
Whitney Morrow says
I’ve always wanted to make one of these cakes but never had a good recipe! Can’t wait!
Let me know how it turns out!
Jeff the Chef says
I’ve always wanted To make a King’s Cake. Thank you For the recipe.
I’ve always wanted to know how to make king cake, and now that I’m living abroad (and have no access to it) I really needed a recipe! Thank you!
It’s really just a fancy breakfast bread!
This looks so delicious and tasty! I can’t wait to give this a try! So excited!
Let me know how it turns out!
This is a beautiful sweet treat! I really enjoyed reading about the meaning of the colours, as I was not aware of this previously. Thank you for this delicious recipe – we love how festive it is!
It’s a pretty cool tradition that seems to be catching on more and more around the rest of the US.
This gives me such fond memories of my time in New Orleans! I love the festive colors of this gorgeous cake!
Jacqueline Meldrum says
I’ve heard of King Cake but wasn’t quite sure what it was. Aren’t they just gorgeous!
This gives me such affectionate recollections of my time in New Orleans! I love the happy shades of this exquisite cake! with free guilds and quests
NOLA certainly is a town like no other! Amazing food!
Ginger Comstock says
I have never made a King cake before, but thought I would try this out. I have to say it was a fun experience. The cake is so delicious, tender and flavorful! If you think it’s a “cake” texture…it’s not. It’s more like a cinnamon roll type dough…and man, was it great! My friends and family really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.
So happy to hear Ginger! It’s fun to try all sorts of fillings too! I love the wild Mardi Gras sprinkles you decorated it with!
As a true-blue New Orleanian whose daughter’s birthday always falls during Carnival season, her birthday cake is ALWAYS a king cake. Thousands upon thousands are sold during the season from Epiphany through Mardi Gras day. Everyone in New Orleans eats them shamelessly at breakfast time, coffee breaks (ubiquitous in offices and teacher’s lounges), dessert, and all times in-between. As a purist, I will NEVER eat one out of season – that would be a sacrilege, but I know a lot of people who eat them year round. However, the best bakers in the city would never bake nor sell them out of season. Gotta go eat a slice right now – Mardi Gras is in just three days, so I have to get my fill! COVID may have stopped our parades and street celebrations, but not our King Cakes – laissez les bon temps rouler, ya’ll!
Love it Betsy! One of my best friends is NOLA raised, (geaux tigers!) and every year for the past dozen or so years I’ve made her a King Cake for their Super Bowl party. (not this year though. 🙁 ) My niece and nephew own a couple of restaurants in NOLA so we visit, but not as often as we would like. It’s a great city!
D Dunwell says
We went to a vintage trailer rally that had a cajun theme. So I made everything cajun inspired including this king cake. This was my first attempt. I have a second proofing for Easter. I did add chopped pecans to the filling. Absolutely delicious I wish I could post my picture it turned out absolutely spectacular!
Hi! Thank you so much for the nice comments! Pecans? Why didn’t I think of that? So adding them to my next one! If you’re on FB, I’d love for you to post a pic! Cynthia
WOOOOW this recipe looking delicious amazing ,,,
Am rate this recipe after tired it
Thank you so much to make my last diner full of LOL
Daria Puffett says
Stupid question, do you let the milk, yeast honey set so yeast bubbles then add butter salt eggs? I didn’t just poured milk in mixed bowl of stand mixer added 1/4 stick butter waited till it melted then add honey yeast salt then add flour. Dough was pretty sticky so with dough hook add a bit more flour to knead a minute more, placed on bowl for two hours however it has not double nor collapse. I think I failed
Daria Puffett says
Added eggs after salt before flour
I add the butter to the stand mixer after the scalded milk.I do it right away. If you wait too long, the yeast might not bloom because the temperature is too cool. Unless you boiled the milk like crazy, the addition of the butter and honey should cool the mixture just to the correct temperature for the yeast to bloom. But as stated, if you’re not sure, a thermometer will give the best results. As with most dough, the stickiness is usually solved by adding a few tablespoons more. I always add the eggs last. Hope that helps!