The King Cake is a sacred confection eaten between Epiphany and Mardi Gras. In different parts of the world, there are different traditions for the type of cake, the filling, and the trinket that’s hidden in the center. In the US, a little plastic baby that represents Jesus is hidden inside the cake and whoever gets the slice with the baby wins. The prize is often the honor of hosting the next King Cake party (prize, burden, whatever you’d like to call it…). So the next time you’re looking to break a tooth on a small, plastic Jesus figurine, here is a recipe for you. —molly yeh
Test Kitchen Notes
When you hear "king cake," you probably think of that golden-hued, puffy-looking pastry crown popular in New Orleans, decorated with off-white icing and colorful purple, green, and gold sanding sugar strewn on top. It's a staple in Louisiana Mardi Gras traditions, not least because it's super-festive and super-delicious. But did you know that it originated in Medieval Europe, and was made of a dry, simple bread dough, which was studded with all manner of sweet toppings to give it flavor? Luckily, it's since evolved in a big (and great) way.
Its current basis is a sweet, yeast-risen and butter-and egg-enriched dough that's reminiscent of brioche. If that all sounds fussy or scary, fear not: That's where Molly Yeh's foolproof, super-detailed recipe comes in. Here, a stand mixer with a dough hook makes quick work of the dough; you'll simply proof the yeast for a bit, mix together the wet ingredients and dry ingredients, then combine the three and knead for just a bit. Then, you'll let the dough get puffy and fluffy and double in size, which gives you ample time to make the filling.
And oh, that filling! In normal occasions, a buttery, eggy, sweet yeasted dough would be more than good enough on its own. But for Mardi Gras, a time of celebration, we'll go one step further. In New Orleans, the dough can either be filled with a tangy cream-cheese frosting or rolled in a buttery cinnamon sugar mixture. We're always into creamy cheese, which is why we love that Molly went that route in this recipe—not to mention, a cream-cheese frosting with brown sugar and toasty pecans. After filling the dough gently, forming it into a crown shape (this sounds fancy but only requires the help of a standard aluminum can, like that thing of black beans in your pantry), then letting it rise for a bit longer before baking to a golden, delicious end.
After it cools, you can top it with a simple icing and sanding sugar—or you can go the extra mile and roll out discs of colorful marzipan, like Molly does. We always want to do what Molly does. —The Editors
- Prep time 2 hours 45 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour
- Makes 1 large cake
2 1/4 teaspoons
or one packet of dry yeast
plus 1 teaspoon of sugar
stick of butter, melted and cooled
all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- Filling and topping
stick of butter
toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
sanding sugar, marzipan circles, or other decorations in yellow, green, and purple
- Combine the warm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of sugar and let proof. While yeast is proofing, whisk together the butter, egg yolks, and vanilla extract. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, combine remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, flour, nutmeg, and salt.
- When the yeast mixture is foamy, add that and the butter mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix to combine. Using a dough hook, or kneading by hand on a floured surface, work the dough (adding flour as needed) for 5 to 7 minutes until you have a smooth dough. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise for two hours, until doubled in size. Begin making the filling as soon as the dough begins rising.
- In a large sauce pan, melt together the butter and cream cheese. Stir in the brown sugar and continue stirring until the mixture starts to bubble. Remove it from heat, stir in the pecans, and then set it aside to cool while the dough finishes rising.
- When the dough is finished rising, transfer it to a large piece of parchment paper and roll it out to a 9- x 13-inch rectangle. Spread the filling on evenly, leaving an inch along one of the long sides so that the filling doesn't ooze out. Starting opposite of that end, roll up the dough like a jelly roll, sticking the baby in somewhere in the middle.
- Grease an empty 28-ounce can and place it in the center of a large baking sheet that's been lined with parchment. Gently wrap the dough roll around the can, seam side down, and pinch the ends well. Let rise for another half an hour.
- Preheat oven to 375° F. Once the cake has gone through its second rising, bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cake is a nice brown color. Remove the can as soon as the cake comes out of the oven. Let the cake cool completely before decorating.
- To make the glaze, whisk together the powdered sugar and milk. If the consistency is too thick for your taste, add more milk a little bit at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. Once the cake is out of the oven and cooled, pour on the the glaze and then decorate as you wish. For my decoration, I kneaded liquid food coloring into marzipan, rolled it out, and then cut out circles. If you'd like to go the traditional route and use standing sugar, you can either use store-bought or make your own by placing a few tablespoons of white sugar in a ziploc bag with a few drops of food coloring and shaking it up.