We don’t celebrate Mardi Gras, Lent, or much of anything really, but I refuse to miss an opportunity to bake a themed dessert. Next Tuesday is Mardi Gras, and so King Cake!
According a photo of an old Google search printout sent to me by my dear friend and New Orleans native, Kelly Pearsall, the king cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in the 1870s. It’s eaten to celebrate the carnival season, everyone’s last hoorah before Lent. King Cakes are decorated in royal colors; purple for justice, green for faith and yellow for power, and a tiny plastic baby is hidden inside. This hidden plastic baby (or dried bean, if you can’t get your hands on tiny babies) supposedly represents Jesus revealing himself to the three wise men. The cake is served at a party, and whoever gets the baby is named King for the day, and must provide the King Cake next year.
Seeing as I got the baby last year and Kelly has moved half way around the world, I’m making our King Cake this year. I’ve followed her recipe, stashed a tiny baby in some sweet brioche dough and gotten crazy with food coloring. Truth be told, Kelly prefers to sprinkle her King Cake with colored sugar and then bake it, but since she’s 6,700 miles away, I’m going off script.
King Cake, from my baking spirit guide, Kelly Pearsall
1/2 cup (2.25 oz) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.22 oz, 1 packet) instant yeast
1/2 cup (4 oz) whole milk, lukewarm (I used 2% without incident)
4 (8.25 oz) large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups (13.75 oz) unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons (1 oz) granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons (0.35 oz) salt
1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, whisked until frothy for egg wash
1 small, plastic baby figurine
2 cups powdered sugar
3-4 tablespoons milk
green, yellow and purple food coloring
Make the sponge. Stir together flour and yeast in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the milk and stir until just combined. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 20 minutes in a warm place.
Make the dough. Add the eggs to the sponge and whisk or beat with the paddle attachment until smooth. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, sugar and salt. Add the flour mixture to the sponge mixture. Stir until all the ingredients are combined. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Add the butter, one quarter at a time, stirring the dough well after each addition. This should take a few minutes. Continue mixing for another six minutes on medium speed. You’ll have to scrape down the bowl from time to time. The dough should be smooth and soft.
Refrigerate the dough. Line a sheet pan with parchment. Mist lightly with oil or coat lightly with oil using a brush or paper towel. Transfer the dough to the pan, spreading it into a rectangle about 6 inches by 8 inches. Coat the dough lightly with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight, or for at least four hours.
Shape the dough. Line a baking sheet with parchment and coat lightly with oil. Remove the dough from the fridge and immediately shape into an oval ring. The dough will double in size so you’ll want to keep that in mind. Most importantly, hide your baby Jesus in the dough! Coat the top lightly with oil and cover with plastic wrap.
Proof the dough. Let the dough rise in a warm place for about 2 hours. It will just about double in size. After about two hours, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Whisk the egg in a small bowl. Coat the dough balls throughly with the egg wash. This is what gives them their beautiful shine. Let them proof for another 15 – 20 minutes.
Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes or longer, depending on how large your cake is. It should be golden brown and 180 degrees F internal temperature. Baking brioche will make your house smell like heaven. You’ll probably want to have the scent of baking brioche as a perfume and you’ll likely text that exact thing to several friends. Cool on a rack for 20 minutes before icing.
Ice your cake. Sift the powdered sugar into a medium bowl. Add a 3 tablespoons of milk. Whisk to combine. Add a bit more milk if the icing is still chunky. Divide the icing into three different bowls and color with green, yellow and purple food coloring. Ice your cooled king cake in the style of your favorite modernist artist.
Share with friends (and share virtually with friends who’ve moved too far away for your liking). Whoever gets the baby is king for the day, and is bound by tradition to provide the King Cake next year!