Happy Mardi Gras Y’all!
Firstly, allow me to make one thing clear… When I speak of Mardi Gras, I am of course referring to the New Orleans carnival celebration that happens in the weeks prior to Lent. This is not to be confused with the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras which is held around the same time in Sydney. As you might imagine, they each have very different traditions and as far as I’m aware, the NOLA version has far fewer Dykes on Bikes.
King cakes are a circular brioche style loaf/cake, very similar to a yeasty cinnamon bun. They are traditionally eaten in the period leading up to Mardi Gras, and decorated with the carnival colours of purple, green and gold. King cakes usually have a tiny little doll hidden within, known as the “baby”. Custom dictates that whoever ends up with the baby in their slice is obligated to supply the next king cake. Some Mardi Gras Krewes even use the baby system to select their carnival monarchs.
I had never made a king cake before, so I chose a recipe by famed New Orleanian chef John Besh and went to work. Full recipe can be found at the bottom of the post.
To start, I combined the yeast with warm milk to activate it, and slowly incorporated the eggs, flour, vanilla and butter to form a dough. In a moment of genius, I decided to use the dough hook attachment on my trusty Kenwood mixer rather than knead by hand.
If you feel like getting your hands dirty, you can knead the last few minutes by hand.
After allowing the dough to rise for an hour and a half, separate it into three pieces, roll them out into long sausage shapes and braid them together. Transfer dough to a baking sheet and form into a ring, let sit for another half an hour to double in size.
After more waiting, pop it into a 375/180 degree oven for half an hour. You may think it looks a little puny on the tray, but fear not, this thing rises fast. Seriously, it was freakin mammoth, stopping just shy of expanding over the sides of the baking tray!
While the cake was cooling, I set about getting the decorations ready. The king cake is usually finished by being smothered in glaze and then coloured sugar. I already had purple sugar but needed the gold and green. Luckily, I also know a few cheeky tricks in the kitchen and decided to make it myself- so much easier than going to specialty cake stores to look for it.
You simply put a cup of sugar in a zip loc bag and pop in 2-3 drops of food colouring. I used gel colours, but liquid colours are probably even easier. Then, you seal up the bag and smoosh it with your fingers until all the grains are coated. Hooray!
I searched through the cake goodies draw and came up with some large edible gold balls which reminded me of Mardi Gras beads. Thus, all decorations were ready to go
The cake had cooled and it was time to get my icing on! I didn’t actually use John’s glaze recipe as I thought his condensed milk version would be too sweet, so I just whipped up a basic glaze of powdered sugar, adding milk little by little until we were happy with the consistency. I spread the gloopy mixture over the cake then commenced sugar sprinkling duty.
And thus, the king cake was finished. And although it was a little messy, and somewhat more amorphous than I had hoped, it tasted great. Hopefully, I’ll be eating next year’s in New Orleans….
JOHN BESH’S KING CAKE
As you knead the dough for this Mardi Gras cake, watch for it to begin to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. If that doesn’t happen (because the moisture content in flour fluctuates with the humidity), add a spoonful or two more flour.For the cake: 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110° 1/2 cup granulated sugar 2 tablespoons dry yeast 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup melted butter 5 egg yolks, beaten 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest 3 teaspoons cinnamon Several gratings of fresh nutmeg For the cake: Pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1½ hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
Once it’s doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.