Happy Mardi Gras y'all! It's Fat Tuesday and our last chance to splurge before Lent. I spent my Lundi Gras-Snow Day baking an authentic Louisiana King Cake. The term "King Cake" is actually a misnomer since it's not a cake at all. It's bread, and you make it like any other bread.
King Cake is eaten during the Carnival season, which starts January 6th and lasts until Mardi Gras. The date of Mardi Gras changes every year due to when Easter is. I had never made a king cake before. There's really no reason to since they're EVERYWHERE you turn in Louisiana. From your finest bakeries, to Wal Mart. Everyone's selling them. But after my "experience" with a certain "Louisiana" bakery in Arlington, VA last year (where I paid over $40 for a small, tasteless king cake), I decided to make my own.
The first thing I did was go to amazon.com and order some king cake babies. Because if there's anything that makes a Louisiana king cake a Louisiana king cake, it's the plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever gets the piece with the baby has to bring the next king cake! This great tradition runs throughout Carnival, so everyone has plenty of opportunities to eat lots and lots of king cake :) Plus, getting the one piece with the baby is a sign of good fortune!
King Cake is social. It's not the type of thing you squirrel away and munch on when you're feeling sad. It's something you celebrate! Everyone eats together, and you eat until it's all gone! This is especially important since it's crucial that someone finds the baby while everyone's enjoying it. This isn't something you take home and "save for later"---what if the baby is in that piece?!
And I almost forgot: the filling. Most king cakes are jazzed up with filling---anything from apple, to strawberry, lemon, or even cream cheese. In fact, the duo strawberry cream cheese is certainly a favorite (and cream cheese is one that no bakery will ship, so you'll have to make sure you try that one in Louisiana!) There's a chocolate/pecan variety also known as a "Zulu" king cake. Mine did not have filling, but it will next year.
I first made the dough and let it rise until it doubled in size (about an hour). I then kneaded in the cinnamon and sugar, and braided the dough. I let the braid sit for a half hour, so that it could become stretchy. I then stretched the braid into a circle and baked it at 370 for about 15 minutes. Lastly, I decorated it. I mixed one cup of powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon of milk, and I drizzled the glaze on top. And most importantly, I decorated it with the official colors of Mardi Gras ( a must for any Louisiana king cake!): Green, Yellow, and Purple.
The cake was yummy, but next year, I'll be using my Aunt Hester's Roll Recipe/Cinnamon Rolls to make my king cake!
King Cake Recipe (Makes one 12-serving king cake)
1/3 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup shortening 2 large eggs 2 packs active dry yeast, 1/4 ounce each 1 cup milk, heated to 110F 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 cups all-purpose four, plus more for dusting and kneading cooled, melted butter OR vegetable oil
Filling and Topping: 1/2 cup sugar 2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 cup powdered sugar 1 tablespoon milk green, yellow, and purple sugar or sprinkles plastic King Cake baby
Heat milk to 110 F. Dissolve yeast into warm milk. Let sit 10 minutes, or until foamy. Meanwhile, prepare the dough.
In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the shortening, sugar, and salt until smooth. Add eggs one at a time and beat until light and fluffy.
After the yeast has dissolved into the milk for 10 minutes, add the vanilla extract to the milk/yeast mixture and stir.
Add yeast/milk mixture to shortening/sugar and stir to combine. Replace the paddle attachment with a dough hook.
Add three cups of flour, one at a time, stirring on low speed until thoroughly combined between additions. Add remaining cup in 1/4 cup increments. Dough should be elastic and not sticky, and should pull away from the sides of the bowl. Add more of less flour as necessary (This is a judgment call and if you're not used to making bread, stick with the directions. But as a general rule of thumb, the more humid of a climate, the more flour that is needed. The dryer the climate, the less flour that is needed.)
Dough temperature out of the mixing bowl should be about 80 F.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand until smooth and pliable. Allow the dough to rest for 60 to 90 minutes, until it doubles in size. (if the dough is in a cooler place, it will be closer to 90 minutes. If it is in a warm, moist place, like near the oven or dryer, it will take closer to 60 minutes).
Roll out into oblong shape about 18 inches long. Coat with cooled, melted butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Roll up dough and knead to incorporate. Roll back into an oblong shape and cut into three strips and form a braid. Let rest 30 minutes, or until the braid can easily be stretched to twice its length. Form an oval. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake at 370 F for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool.
In a small bowl, whisk one tablespoon of milk into one cup of powdered sugar. Drizzle over the king cake. Top the king cake with green, yellow, and purple sugar. Gently lift up the king cake, and tuck the baby in from underneath. Store in an airtight container for up to two days.