Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! King Cake for Mardi Gras

>> Sunday, March 6, 2011

Care to guess what I'll be doing today?  I've spoiled a few Wyoming folk, and they now plead for King Cake.  Mardi Gras is this Tuesday, so King Cake time is quickly ending.  King Cake is just as tasty if it isn't Mardi Gras season, of course, but it just doesn't seem quite right to have it past Mardi Gras.  So, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!  Let the good times - and the King Cake - roll!

Even though I grew up in coastal Mississippi where every town has their own Mardi Gras parade and schools get Fat Tuesday off, I don't have any memories of king cake until moving to Louisiana as an adult.  I'm sure that I had my share of king cake as a child, but in Lousiana, I had lots and lots of king cake.  It's a way of life down there during Mardi Gras season.  We've continued the tradition in our current home of Wyoming to help my son, a Louisiana native, celebrate his heritage (not to mention it's just fun and tasty).

If you're not familiar with Mardi Gras, it's the season just before lent culminating on Mardi Gras day - the day before lent starts.  It is the American South's version of Carnival.  Mardi Gras is known for lots of rich foods, parties, and parades, and is celebrated from the Florida panhandle through southern Louisiana (and other places too, I'm sure).

What is King Cake?   This traditional cake of Mardi Gras was brought over by the French settlers and has morphed into what we eat today.  The cake is a sweet brioche often with a slight cinnamon flavor.  Modern variations can be found stuffed with a cream cheese or fruit filling.

Everything about the king cake is symbolic.  The circular or oval shape is to honor the three kings.  The traditional Mardi Gras colors that decorate the cake are traditional too:  purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents faith.  A small plastic baby (or bean) is often put inside of the cake to represent the baby Jesus.  In Louisiana, whoever found the baby had to bring the next king cake.  We're adding our own twist and saying that whoever finds the baby will have good luck the rest of the year.

King cakes are a Mardi Gras season tradition, but they've become so popular that bakeries make them and people buy them year round now.  Seems like most bakeries in southern Louisiana will ship their king cake nationwide, but we choose to go the cheaper (and just as tasty) homemade route. 

The recipe for this sweet treat looks daunting, I know, but it really isn't that bad.  You need some time, but each step is actually pretty easy.  It's even easier if you have a mixer with a dough hook to do the kneading for you.  (I use the mixer to do most of the mixing, taking a little time to mix in the butter with my own hands.  If you're using a mixer, 6 minutes of kneading with a dough hook seems to do the trick.)  Enjoy!

I didn't use the traditional colors on my king cake - just what I had on hand!  And if you look close, you can see the little plastic baby (totally optional) sitting on top waiting to be hidden inside.

Mardi Gras King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling

1/2 cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 2 tsp sugar
4 cups of flour, plus extra if needed
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup warm milk
5 large egg yolks
1 stick butter, cut into slices and softened
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Cream Cheese Filling (mix all ingredients together):
2 8-oz packages of cream cheese (low fat is fine)
2 cup confectioner's sugar
3 TBSP flour
2 tsp vanilla extract
a few drops of milk

Icing (Mix together using more or less milk to reach the desired consistency.):
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
3 TBSP milk

Pour the warm water into a bowl and sprinkle the yeast and 2 tsp of sugar into it.  Stir and let the yeast/sugar mix set in a warm place for 10 min.

In a bowl, combine the flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg, and salt and mix well.  Pour yeast mixture and warm milk into flour mixture.  Add egg yolks and mix well using hands, spoon, or mixer.  When mixture is mostly smooth, add in butter a tablespoon at a time.  (I use my dough hook to get this going, and then use my hands to finish mixing the butter in.)   Mix until dough forms a smooth ball.

Place ball of dough on a floured surface and knead, adding more flour as necessary.  When dough is no longer very sticky, knead 10 more minutes until shiny and elastic.  (Or use a mixer with a dough hook for about 6 minutes.)

Coat a large bowl with a little butter or oil.  Place dough ball in the bowl and cover with a towel.  Let rise in a warm place for a 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.

After rising, place the dough on a lightly floured surface and punch it down.  Sprinkle the sinnamon on, then pat and shape the dough into a long snake or cylinder.  Use a rolling pin to flatten the cylinder into a long rectangle.  Spoon the cream cheese filling along the center of the rectangle lengthwise.  Pull the lengthwise edges of the rectangle together and fold under to surround the filling with dough.

Carefully move the long, cream cheese filled rectangle onto a baking sheet so that the seam is on the bottom.  Shape into a circle and pinch the ends together.  (A pizza pan works great for this!)

Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place again for 45 minutes.

After the second rising, bake in an oven preheated to 375 F for 25-35 min or until golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack and hide the plastic baby (or bean) inside the cake.

Spoon icing over the cake (it will be thin), and sprinkle green, purple, and gold colored sugar over the icing.


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