Seasonal Flavors: Mardi Gras King Cake

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It would take far too much space in the Gazette to outline exactly how it was that a young, French chef came to live with us for a year. And what a year that was! We were also young and fairly ignorant of the joys of French cuisine, and knew nothing about wines, save for the cheap varietals that would be brought to our parties by other struggling friends (no Virginia wineries in that long ago past). Stephane taught us about good wine, good food and especially the intense joys of butter!

Our year with Stephane is one of the happiest of memories and I will recount some of those times and a particularly wonderful recipe of his in a future column.

This month I’m remembering one of the lovely gifts he brought: a small, porcelain baby meant to be baked into a King Cake for Mardi Gras. I loved that little baby, but I lost it, and I’ve lamented it yearly, substituting a bean in the cake, in place of the precious little baby.  But now that the new generation is learning of these wonderful customs, I decided I needed to search for a new cake treasure. Where else but the Internet? And there I found a vendor who would send me a dozen plastic (yuck) babies for $4.50 plus shipping! So now I’m in possession of twelve little ones. What will I do with all of them? Write me if you’d like one.

There are many legends associated with baking a baby in a King Cake; some associate it with Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas), but in this country, heavily influenced by the French culture in New Orleans, it is made more often at Mardi Gras—the pre-Lenten festival. So the baby Jesus makes another appearance in the cake and the guest who finds it in their serving is the king or queen of the party.

Mardi Gras King Cake

For the cake: 

  • ½ cup warm water
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • ¾ cup sugar plus 2 tsp 
  • for the yeast
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ cup warm milk
  • ¾ cup melted butter
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 ½ tsp cinnamon

Combine the warm water, yeast and 2 tsp of sugar.  Let stand for five minutes.

In a standing mixer, combine the flour, ¼ cup of the sugar and the salt. Add the warm milk, ½ cup of the melted butter and the yeast mixture.  Beat at low speed till combined.  Add the egg yolks and continue to beat until smooth.  Add more flour if needed, to make a stiff dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead for ten minutes until smooth. Put the dough into a buttered bowl, cover with a tea towel and allow to rise for 30 minutes or until it has doubled in bulk.

Punch the dough lightly and then return it to the floured board and roll into a rectangle shape, about 25 x 10 inches.

Use the remaining ¼ cup of butter to brush the surface of the dough and then sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of sugar and the cinnamon.  Put the baby (or the bean if that’s all you’ve got) on the dough and, starting at the long end, roll as you would cinnamon rolls.  Moisten the edges with water to help to seal the seam.

Place seam side down on a buttered baking sheet and bring the ends around to form a ring.  Seal all edges. Cover with the tea towel and allow to rise again for 30 minutes.

Bake at 3500F for 25 minutes, until golden.

For the icing: 

  • 1½ cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 2 ½ tsp milk
  • ¼ tsp vanilla
  • Yellow, purple and red food coloring
  • Yellow, purple and red sprinkles or colored sugar

Combine the confectioner’s sugar, milk and vanilla and divide into three, small bowls. Color one bowl with the yellow, one with the red and one with the purple (you can use equal parts red and blue coloring to make purple). Decorate your King cake with the three icing mixes and then sprinkle with colored sugar. Yes—this is gaudy—we’re talkin’ New Orleans here. Have fun.

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