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Every year in New Orleans, the game of king caking starts to feel more and more like a full-contact sport. Local shops create and serve (and ship!) these cakes each year from Twelfth Night through Mardi Gras day (and yes, it is absolute blasphemy to consume king cake outside of season here). A traditional part of Mardi Gras for the last three hundred years in New Orleans (and beyond), these cakes are more like brioche than “cake” as we know it. The yeast-raised dough is braided, sometimes around various fillings, formed into a ring, and baked. Afterwards, it’s topped with green, purple, and gold sugar to represent faith, justice, and power, respectively, a nod to the “three kings.” A token of some sort, be it a bean or plastic baby, is stuffed randomly inside, and tradition states that whoever gets the slice of king cake with the token has to host the next party! There are as many thoughts, feelings, opinions, and preferences about king cakes in New Orleans as there are king cakes themselves. I take a pretty traditional approach with the dough, but my team and I dreamed up the idea of adding a layer of caramelized sugar to give our cake a fun, shattering crunch. With cream cheese icing for a less-sweet approach, I find myself craving this cake year-round.

Kelly Fields

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Credit: Oriana Koren

Recipe Summary

active:
1 hr
total:
17 hrs
Yield:
Makes one 10-inch cake
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Ingredients

Dough
Cinnamon Filling
Caramel Crunch
Cream Cheese Icing

Directions

Make the dough
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the bread flour and all-purpose flour with the yeast. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, whisk the eggs until smooth. Switch to the dough hook or a large wooden spoon, and add the milk, lard, and flour mixture. Mix on low speed until a dough starts to form, 3 to 4 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on low speed, add the sugar and salt, then increase the speed to medium, and mix for 3 minutes. Decrease the speed to low and add the butter, a little at a time, until fully incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat the dough for 5 to 7 minutes, until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough becomes silky and shiny.

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  • Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and press it with the heel of your hand to about 3⁄4 inch thick and as close to a 6 by 10-inch rectangle as possible (it’s fine if it’s a little wider or longer; you will trim it later). Cover the baking sheet in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (about 12 hours). The dough can also be frozen if you don’t plan to use it the next day, but it will need to thaw overnight in the refrigerator when you’re ready for it.

Make the cinnamon filling
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix the granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, salt, and vanilla until a uniform paste forms, about 2 minutes. The filling can be used right away or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and brought to room temperature before using.

  • Lightly coat a 10-inch-round cake pan with 2-inch-high sides with cooking spray. Cut the cold dough into two 3-by-5-inch strips. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll each piece evenly, maintaining a rectangular shape, until each piece is approximately 6 by 12 inches. Using an offset spatula, spread half of the cinnamon filling into a thin, almost transparent layer on one of the strips of dough, making sure to leave a 1-inch border on all but the long bottom edge. Using a pastry brush, brush the border with water along the upper lip of the dough until slightly wet; this will act as a sealant later. Starting at the bottom edge, roll up the dough like a cinnamon roll. (You want the edge you left bare to end up at the outside of the roll.) Once rolled, lightly press down to evenly seal the dough; the water will help to fully seal. Using your hands, continue to roll the log to double the length, about 22 inches. Make sure to keep the width of the log consistent. Follow the same process for the second strip of dough.

  • Twist together the two dough logs, one over the other, in a spiral. Once fully twisted, connect the ends together to form a ring shape; pinch to seal if needed. Place the dough in the prepared pan and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough proof at room temperature (ideally about 75°F) for about 2 hours, until it has risen to about 1 1⁄2 times its original size and slightly springs back after you press it. (If it does not spring back at all, it has overproofed and should be discarded.)

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set a wire rack on the pan. Before baking, spritz the dough with water (or lightly sprinkle water over the dough with your hands) to help keep the crust from hardening. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the pan after 15 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then carefully remove the king cake from the pan and transfer it to the wire rack on the baking sheet. Let cool completely, about 1 hour.

Make the caramel crunch
  • In a small nonreactive saucepot, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water and bring to a boil over high heat, making sure the sugar fully dissolves. (Do not stir the mixture—stirring will cause the sugar to crystalize.) Continue cooking just until the mixture becomes a medium amber color, 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and ladle the caramel over the cake, creating a thin, even coating over the entire cake. Allow the crunch to set for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the cake is setting, make the icing
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix the cream cheese on medium speed until very smooth. Decrease the speed to low and add the powdered sugar in three portions, mixing well after each addition, until a smooth paste forms. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low speed, slowly stream in the milk and mix until the icing is well combined and smooth. Mix in the vanilla bean paste. This icing can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Bring to room temperature before using.

  • While the cake is still on the wire rack, drizzle the icing over the cake. I like to use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop (about 2 tablespoons) to drop a bit of icing over the higher ridges on the top of the cake, and then I pour the icing as I move away from the cake, so it kind of waterfalls down the sides. (I think it looks pretty awesome this way.) If you’re sticking true to Mardi Gras tradition, sprinkle the sanding sugar over the top and allow the cake to sit for at least 30 minutes before transferring it to a serving plate. You can keep the king cake in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, but it truly is best on the day it is made.

Notes

Reprinted with permission from The Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings, copyright (c) 2020. Published by Lorena Jones Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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