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Homemade King Cake: The Next Best Thing to Mardi Gras in NOLA

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At this point it seems highly unlikely that you’re going to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. You could probably buy a crazy-expensive plane ticket (and even make it in time to catch a shoe tonight), but we say: Save your bank account, your liver, and your glitter for another day—and make a king cake at home.

King Cake With Cream Cheese Dough
King Cake With Cream Cheese Dough

When I lived in New Orleans, I never had a homemade king cake, let alone baked one—there was simply no reason to. They seem to appear at every gathering of three or more people between Epiphany and Mardi Gras day, which makes it borderline insane to bake you own. Plus, during carnival season, there are more important matters to devote your time to, like working on meticulously constructed original costume(s) and wig shopping.

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How to explain a king cake to the uninitiated? Think of it as a giant cinnamon roll housing a tiny, plastic baby Jesus—stay with me—that’s twisted or braided into a circle, covered in icing, and liberally sprinkled with purple, green, and gold sugar.

The texture of the dough varies from bready to that of a squishy raised donut or a rich brioche or a flakey croissant, depending on the bakery. There are even babka king cakes now, thanks to recent babka-mania. The most traditional fillings are cinnamon and cream cheese, but you can also find king cakes filled with a variety of fruit jams, as well as the less traditional apple and goat cheese (hi, Cake Cafe!) or maple-bacon praline.

Despite all the bells and whistles, I think most people would agree that the cream cheese-filled cakes are the best. Which makes sense, because cream cheese is insanely good.

While I haven’t met a king cake I don’t like, my favorites tend to land on the brioche side of the spectrum. They expand and stretch as you pull them apart—masquerading their richness—to reveal ribbons of filling laced throughout. My only qualm is that sometimes they end up being a little dry, and while nothing about Mardi Gras suggests restraint, they can be a bit cloying.

So we went a little crazy on the babies.
So we went a little crazy on the babies. Photo by Mark Weinberg

This year, my second year away from the glittery hubbub, I decided it was time to make my own. I knew I wanted to stay in a traditional vein, but I wanted to experiment with putting cream cheese in the dough rather than as the filling.

Cream cheese has long been admired as an addition that makes pie dough more forgiving, tender, and flakey, and I figured that it would be welcome addition to a classic brioche dough in lieu of a portion of the butter and eggs. It took a few tries to get the ratios right, but my inklings were confirmed by the resulting bouncy, tender dough.

As a nod to Galette des Rois (the traditional king cake of Northern France), I filled it with frangipane plus a dash of cocoa powder for a little oomph. And, because you can’t taste the cream cheese in the dough, I finished it with a cream cheese glaze. The result is rich and decadent, without smashing you over the head. I highly recommend pairing it with a cup of coffee and a quick scroll through the Visit New Orleans Instagram account.

Note: Feel free to use whatever filling is calling your name. A traditional cinnamon filling, or jam, or something more decadent (like bourbon pecan) would be quite at home in this dough. For melting plastic safety reasons, tuck the baby into the king cake after removing it from the oven. And the rules state: Whoever gets the baby is responsible for providing the next king cake.

P.S. You can order plastic babies online—on Prime even (thank you, Amazon).

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King Cake With Cream Cheese Dough

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Makes 1 large twisted cake

For the dough:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (5 grams) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar plus 1/4 teaspoon, divided
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 egg yolks (save the whites for egg wash)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 1/2 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the filling, glaze, and assembly:

  • For the filling:
  • 7 ounces almond paste (1 tube)
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter, room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (57 grams) confectioners' sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • For the glaze:
  • 1/2 cup 4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup (114 grams) confectioners' sugar
  • Purple, green, and gold colored sugars
  • Plastic baby

What's a regional dish or speciality you'd love to recreate at home? Tell us in the comments below.