King cake is a traditional pastry associated with the celebration of Mardi Gras, particularly in the Gulf Coast region of the United States, most notably in Louisiana. It is a sweet and colorful cake that is typically enjoyed during the Carnival season, which starts on January 6th (Epiphany or Twelfth Night) and culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll) —Anonymous
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
- Traditional King Cake
- Decadent flavor with fresh fruit
- Fillings are interchangeable
- Fluffy pastry with a gooey inside
Being from the North, I was not privy to the local obsessions with regional Southern foods and desserts. This ignorance was magnified by my New York City upbringing where nearly every food was available at my leisure and sometimes done better than at its place of origin. But, some things just aren’t better in New York; this is because New York doesn’t always have the history and cultural significance of a food that can get some of us excited in a nostalgic, happy, and proud way.
After trying king cake for the first time, I honestly wasn’t WOWED. It was one of the prepackaged box brands we sold in tower high stacks at my store. It tasted good, but the sickeningly sweet filling and tooth numbing icing had me wondering if I had become diabetic overnight. It took me 5 years after that experience before I tasted king cake again. This time it was homemade, just sweet enough for my mouth to be comfortable, raging in nutmeg and lemon flavors with a punch of cinnamon―my tongue was as happy and colorful as the parade!
I quickly learned that king cake is an essential culinary centerpiece to the entire Carnival season of Louisiana, pockets of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and pretty much anywhere along the Gulf Coast. Each region celebrates Mardi Gras differently, but the most extravagant, colorful, loud, and exhilarating celebration is in New Orleans where the celebration is also called “the greatest free party on earth”.
Origin of King Cake
The King cake has its origins in the traditions of various cultures, including European and Catholic traditions. Its history is closely tied to the celebration of Epiphany and the Christian holiday of Twelfth Night, marking the visit of the Three Wise Men (or Magi) to the baby Jesus.
Roman and Pagan Roots: The custom of celebrating the winter solstice with a special cake dates back to ancient Roman and pagan traditions. These early cakes often contained hidden tokens and coins, symbolizing good fortune and fertility.
Christian Adaptation: With the spread of Christianity, these solstice traditions were incorporated into the celebration of Epiphany, the Christian holiday commemorating the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. The cake became associated with the Feast of Epiphany, which falls on January 6th.
Medieval Europe: In medieval Europe, the cake took on different regional forms and names, such as the “Twelfth Night Cake” or “Kings’ Cake.” These cakes were rich, sweet, and often contained hidden tokens or figurines representing the Magi.
French Influence: The King cake, as we know it today, was brought to Louisiana and other parts of the United States by French and Spanish settlers. The French version of the cake, known as the “Galette des Rois,” is still a popular tradition in France and other French-speaking regions. In New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it became a beloved part of Mardi Gras celebrations.
Carnival Season: Over time, the King cake’s association with Epiphany evolved into a more extended celebration, the Carnival season, which begins on Twelfth Night and culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. It is during this season that King cakes are most commonly enjoyed.
Symbolism: The King cake is typically decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold, symbolizing justice, faith, and power. The small figurine or token hidden inside the cake represents the baby Jesus, and finding it is considered a sign of good fortune. The person who discovers the trinket is often designated as the “king” or “queen” of the celebration and may be responsible for hosting the next King cake event.
Key characteristics of a traditional King cake include:
- Circular Shape: King cakes are typically round or oval in shape, symbolizing the unity of faith.
- Colorful Icing: They are decorated with colorful icing in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (symbolizing justice), green (symbolizing faith), and gold (symbolizing power). These colors are used to represent the “royalty” associated with the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus.
- Hidden Trinket: Traditionally, a small plastic baby or a dried bean is hidden inside the cake. Finding the hidden trinket is considered a sign of good luck and responsibility. The person who discovers it is often expected to host the next King cake party or event.
- Flavor and Fillings: King cakes are often a sweet, cinnamon-flavored bread or pastry. They can be filled with various fillings like cream cheese, praline, fruit, or chocolate, adding an extra layer of flavor.
- Glaze or Frosting: The cake is typically covered with a sugary glaze or frosting and may be sprinkled with additional colored sugars.
- Decorations: Some King cakes are adorned with additional decorations, like beads or plastic figurines, to enhance the festive, Mardi Gras atmosphere.
Honestly, the very first time I ever saw a king cake was when I was stocking them at work after the Christmas season. I had asked by boss, “What the hell is that?” The cake looked more like a giant loaf of braided bread. It was flamboyant, soaked in pearly icing and generously sprinkled with green, violet, and gold crystals. The boxed cake came with matching beads and a plastic baby. “It’s a King Cake for Mardi Gras!” my boss said, “and it’s f*cking delicious!”
(Yeah… we had some potty mouths at work. Is there a difference between bakers, cooks, and sailors?)
Where to Find Authentic King Cakes
If you crave a decadent king cake and live nowhere near the Gulf Coast, Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery, Haydel’s Bakery, and Breads on Oak are excellent places to start because you can have them shipped to anywhere in the United States. The only downside is that the cost for these quality cakes will vary between $50 and $80 depending on the fillings you prefer.
Unfortunately, many people opt for the hit or miss prepackaged king cakes at supermarkets that cost between $7 and $12―these cakes aren’t inherently bad, but are often juiced up with cheap fillers and extra, extra, extra sugar. They also don’t taste as much like a traditional king cake.
Unless you have one made in Louisiana where baking king cakes is an art form (and a matter of life and death), you’re best tackling the tasty dessert at home. The ingredients will run you approximately $20, but you’ll have a wholesome, rich, and gorgeous king cake as your party showstopper.
Our Raspberry Cream Cheese King Cake Recipe
For those of you who prefer to get down and dirty in the kitchen, roll out sticky dough, and sweep up explosions of flour, I present to you this recipe for a brioche style raspberry cream cheese king cake. It is inspired by the traditional homemade and bakery style king cakes of Louisiana, as well as my favorite flavor: raspberry cream cheese.
The flavors are well balanced with delicious, spiced cream cheese and fresh raspberry swirled into buttery, soft dough. The cake has extra zest with a lemon based icing. This cake makes your house smell heavenly as it bakes. For the best taste, eat it fresh within an hour after you make it. The dough will be plush, the filling warm, and the crystal sprinkles full of crunch.
As some of our wonderful readers have already done, you may substitute the fillings. You can try apple, cinnamon, strawberry, or lemon curd (just to name a few).
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Special Tools and Equipment
Stand Mixer or Bread Machine
Rubber or silicone spatual
large and medium mixing bowls
Raspberry Cream Cheese King Cake
For The Dough
- 1 stick (113g) unsalted butter room temperature
- 3/4 cup (175ml) whole milk room temperature
- 2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk save the egg white for glazing
- 4 cups (520g) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup (60g) granulated sugar
- 3 tsp (15g) instant yeast
- 1 1/4 tsp (8g) sea salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- zest of 1 lemon
For Cream Cheese Filling
- 8 oz (227g) cream cheese, room temperature
- 1/4 cup (60g) cane sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
For The Raspberry Filling
- 7 oz (200g) raspberry preserves
- 6 oz (170) fresh raspberries
For The Icing
- 1 cup (100g) powdered sugar
- juice of a whole lemon
- 1 tbsp (15g) melted butter
For The Garnish
- Green, purple, and gold glitter sprinkles or crystallized sugar
Make The Dough
In a bread machine with a dough setting or a large mixing bowl with a hook attachment, mix all of the dough ingredients until a smooth, slightly sticky ball of dough forms. Alternatively, you can mix the dough with a oiled wooden spoon and your hands. Just be aware that the dough will be sticky. Do not add additional flour.
Oil a separate clean bowl with approximately 3 tbsp of vegetable oil and place the ball of dough inside. Coat the top of the dough with a little more oil and place a sheet of plastic wrap on top. Allow the dough to proof overnight in your refrigerator.
The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature.
Generously flour a clean surface and place the ball of dough on top. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough until you have a rectangle that is 15”x20”.
Make The Cream Cheese and Raspberry Filling
In a medium mixing bowl, cream together the cream cheese filling ingredients until smooth. Evenly spread the filling all over the dough. Leave about an inch of seam allowance.
Next, evenly layer the raspberry jam over the cream cheese. Mash the fresh raspberries in another bowl and spread them evenly over the jam and cream cheese.
Shape The Cake
Using floured hands and starting from the longest side of the dough, roll the dough into a log and seal the seams.
Alternatively, you can cut the dough lengthwise and roll each section separately. Twist the two rolls together to create an attractive, twisted bread.
Place the dough on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper with the seams facing down. Connect the ends of your cake, creating a ring. It is okay if it does not look perfect; the icing will cover any imperfections. Place a glass cup in the middle to prevent the inside from touching.
Coat the top of the cake with cooking spray or vegetable oil and cover it loosely with plastic wrap or cheese cloth. Allow the cake to proof for 1 to 3 hours so that it doubles or triples in size.
Once the cake has doubled in size, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C)
Take the plastic wrap off the cake and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes.
Loosely cover the top of the cake with foil to prevent additional browning, and bake the cake for another 30 minutes. It should be an attractive golden brown on the top.
Take the cake out of the oven and allow it to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
Make The Icing and Decorate The Cake
Mix all of the icing ingredients together and spread the glaze evenly across the cake. It is okay if the cake is still a little warm; the frosting should still set. Add the colored sprinkles, alternating gold, green, and purple.
If you’re having a Mardi Gras party, stick a little baby figurine underneath the cake! Just tell your guests to be careful and to check their slice for the toy before eating the cake.