Happy Mardi Gras! Got king cake?
It's Mardi Gras -- got your king cake?
It may not be so common on the West Coast, but the king cake is very popular in the southern U.S. (generally eastern Texas to Florida) where Mardi Gras is celebrated. It's typically a brioche-like coffee cake in the shape of an oval ring, and sometimes containing a filling or two. The cake is frosted and decorated with colored sugars (purple, representing justice; green, representing faith; and gold, representing power). Hidden inside one may find a plastic baby or a bean, making that person "king" or "queen" for a day (and also making him or her responsible for providing the next king cake at a king cake party).
Largely drawn from Catholic tradition, the king cake spans a number of cultures and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. From the classic French gâteau de rois to Mexico's la rosca de reyes, it commonly marks the celebration of Epiphany, or the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem on the 12th day of Christmas.
I had my first king cake several years ago. I was training at a restaurant in New Orleans after completing my culinary studies and happened to be in town for the Carnival season (Carnival starts on Epiphany, or Jan. 6, and ends with Mardi Gras, the last day before the start of Lent). The energy was simply amazing, the whole city swept up in a celebration that just continued to build as Mardi Gras drew near. And while I loved the parades around town and the revelry in the French Quarter, it's probably the king cake parties with local friends that I remember most fondly.
Since then, I try to get back to New Orleans whenever I can to celebrate Mardi Gras. When I can't (more often than not), I love to celebrate locally with friends. I'll make a king cake or two, and we'll throw a small party.
I've included a recipe for my king cake. While they're easy to find online, shipped king cakes can be dry and lacking in flavor. This homemade version may involve a little work, but the results are worth it. And outside of Carnival season, the recipe makes a great coffee cake any time of the year.
Happy Mardi Gras!
Mardi Gras king cake with cream cheese and apple fillings
Servings: 12 to 16
Note: For better flavor, rehydrate the raisins in a small saucepan, covered with spiced rum, over low heat just until plump and tender.
3/4 cup milk, divided
1 package (2½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2/3 cup sugar, divided
3 eggs, divided
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, divided
3½ cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces
1/4 cup raisins, rehydrated
10 ounces (1¼ boxes) cream cheese, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla, divided
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
Purple, green and yellow colored sugars for decorating
1. In a small pan, heat one-half cup plus 2 tablespoons milk over medium heat just until warmed. Remove from heat and pour the milk into a small bowl or measuring cup. Stir in the yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar, then set aside until the yeast is activated and the milk is foamy, about 10 minutes.
2. Whisk two of the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer) until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Stir in the yeast mixture and one-third cup sugar until fully incorporated.
3. If using a stand mixer, switch to the paddle attachment. With the mixer running, add 10 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until incorporated.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and one-half teaspoon salt. With the mixer running, add the flour, one spoonful at a time, until fully incorporated.
5. Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until it is soft and elastic with a silky texture, 5 to 7 minutes. Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl and lightly cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1½ hours.
6. While the dough is rising, make the fillings. To make the apple filling, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon and one-eighth teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, just until the apple starts to soften, 3 to 4 minutes (the slices should still be crisp). Remove from heat and stir in the toasted pecans and raisins. Spread the apple mixture onto a baking sheet to stop the cooking process and allow the apples to cool quickly.
7. To make the cream cheese filling, whisk together 8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese with three-fourths teaspoon vanilla, one-fourth teaspoon salt and the remaining sugar. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg. Add half of the egg to the cream cheese mixture and whisk to combine; reserve the remaining half for the egg wash.
9. Make an egg wash: Combine the remaining beaten half egg with the remaining 2 tablespoons milk.
10. Spoon the apple filling down the length of one side, leaving a 1½-inch border on the top, bottom and sides. Repeat with the cream cheese filling down the other side of the dough, leaving a 1½-inch border on the top, bottom and each side. Lightly brush the edges and center of the dough (along the score) with the egg wash to moisten. Gently and carefully pull the dough over the cream cheese filling, sealing the edge of the dough along the score mark. Repeat with the apple filling. Press the sealed edges making sure they are secure (otherwise the fillings could spill out while the cake bakes).
11. Gently twist the length of the dough to form a braid. Wrap the dough so it forms an oval wreath and gently press the edges together. Carefully transfer the wreath to a parchment lined baking sheet.
12. Brush the top of the wreath lightly with egg wash and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until almost doubled in volume, 45 minutes to an hour. Alternatively, loosely cover and refrigerate the dough overnight; remove from the refrigerator about 1hour before baking for the dough to come to room temperature.
13. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly brush the wreath with any remaining egg wash and place the sheet in the oven.
14. Bake the king cake until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (the toothpick will remain moist if it hits the cream cheese filling), about 30 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway through baking for even coloring.
15. While the king cake is baking, make the glaze. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium bowl with a hand mixer), whisk together the remaining 2 ounces cream cheese, the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, the remaining one-fourth teaspoon vanilla and remaining one-eighth teaspoon salt. With the mixer running add the sifted powdered sugar, one spoonful at a time, until it is fully incorporated.
16. Allow the cake to cool slightly before it is frosted (if too hot, the glaze will run off the cake and not adhere). Drizzle the glaze evenly over the cake, then lightly sprinkle over the colored sugars. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature.
-- Noelle Carter
Photos by Noelle Carter