Bake

King Cake

by:
January  7, 2022
4.4 Stars
Author Notes

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 United States, 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 cream 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
Ingredients
  • Cake:
  • 3/4 cup warm milk
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the bowl
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Filling and Topping:
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 plastic baby
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) milk
  • Sanding sugar, marzipan circles, or other decorations in yellow, green, and purple
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Make the Cake: In a small bowl, combine the milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of the granulated sugar and let proof until foamy. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, butter, and vanilla. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, salt, nutmeg, and remaining ¼ cup of the granulated sugar.
  2. Add the yeast mixture and egg yolk mixture to the flour mixture. Mix (or knead by hand on a floured surface), adding flour as needed, for 5 to 7 minutes, until a smooth dough forms. Transfer the dough to a bowl greased with butter, cover with a damp towel, and let rise for about 2 hours, until doubled in size. Begin making the filling as soon as the dough begins rising.
  3. Make the Filling: In a large saucepan, melt the butter and cream cheese. Stir in the brown sugar and continue to cook, stirring, until the mixture starts to bubble. Remove from the heat, stir in the pecans, and let cool while the dough finishes rising.
  4. Transfer the dough to a large piece of parchment paper and roll to a 13-by-9-inch rectangle. Spread with the filling, leaving 1 inch along one of the long sides so 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.
  5. Grease an empty 28-ounce can and place in the center of a large parchment-lined baking sheet. Gently wrap the dough roll around the can, seam side down, and pinch the ends well to seal. Let rise for about 30 minutes.
  6. Heat the oven to 375°F. Bake the cake for 30 to 40 minutes, until nicely browned. Remove the can as soon as the cake comes out of the oven. Let the cake cool completely before decorating.
  7. Make the Glaze: In a medium bowl, whisk the powdered sugar and milk. If the consistency is too thick for your taste, add more milk a little bit at a time. Once the cake is cooled, pour on the the glaze, then decorate as you wish. For my decoration, I kneaded liquid food coloring into marzipan, rolled it out, 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 zip-top bag with a few drops of food coloring and shaking it up.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Nina Casazza Forestiere
    Nina Casazza Forestiere
  • Anne Heymann
    Anne Heymann
  • Erin Lynch
    Erin Lynch
molly yeh recently moved from brooklyn to a farm outside of grand forks, north dakota, where her husband is a fifth generation farmer. she writes the blog my name is yeh.

3 Reviews

Erin L. March 1, 2022
First time making a King Cake, and this recipe is delicious. The dough is very forgiving to work with although mine did take longer to rise, especially the final rise, than stated in the recipe. I made two versions, one with the pecans and one omitting them for my friends who can't have nuts. Both were great. I did also add a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch nutmeg to the filling.
 
Nina C. February 24, 2017
My husband said this was the best King Cake he has had and he grew up in NO.
 
Anne H. March 9, 2014
This was AMAZING! The cake alone was rich and decadent but the praline type filling took it over the top. The only trouble I had was with sealing the ring together for the final rise. I thought I pinched it enough but it separated while cooking. Of course, it didn't effect the taste at all but it didn't look as beautiful as the photograph. The filling made a large portion too so once I rolled up the cake, it was heavy to transfer to my sheet pan. The middle of the roll was thicker (I guess with shifted filling) than the sides that I tried to join together to make the ring.