Celebrate anywhere with this Mardi Gras king cake recipe! The BEST king cake recipe I’ve tried.
There’s something so amazing about the Carnival season. Starting January 6 each year and all the way through Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), communities in Louisiana and coastal Alabama celebrate with parades, parties, and of course… king cake!
The exact origins of the Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States are debated, with both New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama claiming rights. I’m not going to offer an opinion towards either as I’m not native, but I am very much looking forward to celebrating with family and friends this weekend in Mobile. New Orleans Mardi Gras will wait for another year.
BUT, when the Godfather and I had a chance to visit New Orleans last year, we did get to try some king cake. His first reaction, “Yours is better.”
Now how did one Godmother end up with a delicious king cake recipe? A bakery request, Google, and a little recipe testing. But this recipe has been a hit each and every time I’ve made it! Our last assignment, the Godfather took one in to his office and it was placed next to a cake shipped in from New Orleans… this one disappeared first.
So let’s talk king cake!
First of all, what is king cake? King cake is a very festive Mardi Gras dessert made of a brioche dough with any variety of fillings. The most common filling we saw in New Orleans was cinnamon, but feel free to get creative! I’ve used chocolate, apple pie filling, caramel, lemon curd, even guava and cheese! We do love the pecan cinnamon filling here though, and it’s the most requested by my people.
The biggest surprise, and an absolute requirement for making the perfect king cake, is the inclusion of the “token”. This is often a little plastic baby figurine representing the baby Jesus, a plastic ring, coin, dried bean, even a shelled pecan. There are several possible meanings behind this token, and getting it is supposed to bring luck. And by luck, we mean you’re the lucky one who gets to bring the king cake to the next party of the season! 😉
Umm… Do you bake the plastic into the cake?
No… please don’t bake plastic into your cake. Most of the tokens are not oven-safe, so you’ll just follow the recipe instructions and hide the token through a small opening on the bottom of the cake after it has cooled a bit and before frosting. That way you hide the evidence!
As for decorations, king cakes must be decorated with some combination of yellow, purple, and green. Why these colors? Because since 1892 these have been the official colors of Mardi Gras. Green stands for faith, purple for justice, and gold for power. You can decorate with sanding sugar, by coloring the icing, or using candies in the coordinating colors. This is a great opportunity to get the kids in the kitchen. Over the top is just right!
Even if you’ve never baked bread before, I do hope you’ll give this recipe a try. The brioche dough is very forgiving and the results are delicious! Don’t forget to add a few beads and masks and you’ll have your own Mardi Gras party in no time. Laissez les bon temps rouler (Let the good times roll)!
- 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup lukewarm water
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 egg yolk
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting work surfaces
Cinnamon Pecan Filling
- 4 tablespoons butter, melted
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup pecan halves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 3 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3-4 tablespoons milk
- yellow sanding sugar
- green sanding sugar
- purple sanding sugar
- plastic baby, washed and dried
- Combine the water, yeast, and half the sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl. Stir, and allow the yeast to bloom 5-10 minutes until it looks a little frothy.
- Stir in the rest of the sugar, the salt, milk, sour cream, vanilla, and egg yolk. Set aside.
- In another mixing bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups of flour with the unsalted butter using either a pastry cutter or clean hands until the mixture resembles wet sand.
- Stir the flour, in thirds, into your yeast mixture. If using a mixer, use the dough hook to knead on low for about 4 minutes. If doing this by hand, it will take about 8-10 minutes to get a nice smooth dough. Add additional flour by the tablespoon if the dough is too sticky, but be conservative as too much flour leads to a heavy dough.
- Wipe out your large mixing bowl and spray lightly with oil or brush with butter. Shape the dough into a ball, flip twice in the greased bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free spot until about doubled in size. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour depending on ambient temperature.
- When the dough has almost risen, melt the butter for your filling and set aside. Chop the pecans, and combine your brown sugar and cinnamon.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll your dough into a rectangle about 8 inches wide and 14 inches long. Brush with the butter, leaving a 1" margin at the top edge. Spread the sugar mixture over the butter and sprinkle with the pecans. Do not add your king cake token at this time.
- Starting at the long edge closest to you, roll up the dough into a tube and then carefully shape into a circle or oval on a 10" cake board or parchment lined cookie sheet. Tuck the ends into each other and gently press to seal. Use a little water at the tips of your fingers to help if needed.
- Lightly cover the cake with plastic wrap and set aside to rise another 30-40 minutes.
- 10 minutes before the rise time is complete, preheat your oven to 350 F. When that is ready, remove the plastic from the king cake and bake for 30-40 minutes until the cake sounds hollow when tapped and is a golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool 20-30 minutes before frosting.
- Before frosting the cake, carefully lift an edge and press your king cake baby into the cake. You shouldn't be able to see where you added the token.
- Make the frosting by whipping the butter until fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl and then add the confectioner's sugar, one cup at a time, until combined. Add the vanilla, and then add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until a thick glaze consistency is reached. If you are coloring the glaze, separate into bowls and do so now.
- Spread the glaze over the cake and decorate with the sanding sugar, sprinkles, or candies.
- Store the cake in a cake box or cake carrier at room temperature overnight or in the refrigerator up to a week. Enjoy!
- Be sure to use active dry yeast and NOT instant yeast. This changes the rise time of the recipe. If you only have instant yeast, skip step 1 in the recipe and just start with all ingredients from step 1 added in step 2. You may also want to check your bread a little earlier that noted (about 10-15 minutes) since instant yeast rises faster than active dry.
- Instead of using sanding sugar, you may substitute sprinkles, candies, or even color your frosting purple, green, and yellow.
- While a baby figurine is common, you may also use a shelled pecan, a plastic coin, or a large uncooked bean.
- Adapted from the New Orleans Public Library
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