King Cake with Caramel Crunch


Kelly Fields' traditional Mardi Gras dessert has a caramel crunch layer that gives the rich cake even more texture and sweetness.

Mardi Gras King Cake
Photo: Oriana Koren
Active Time:
1 hrs
Total Time:
17 hrs
1 10-inch cake

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



  • 2 ½ cups bread flour

  • 2/3 cup all purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast (such as SAF brand)

  • 2 eggs, at room temperature

  • 1 cup whole milk

  • 2 tablespoons lard (you can use vegetable shortening or butter, but it won't be as delicious)

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into pieces and slightly softened

Cinnamon Filling

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar

  • ¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Caramel Crunch

  • ½ cup granulated sugar

  • ½ teaspoon light corn syrup

  • ¼ cup water

Cream Cheese Icing

  • ½ cup cream cheese (4 ounces), at room temperature

  • 4 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted

  • ¼ cup whole milk

  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)


Make the cake

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

  2. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Transfer dough to baking sheet and press it with 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 baking sheet in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (about 12 hours). Dough can also be frozen, but will need to thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.

  3. 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 to approximately 6 by 12 inches, maintaining a rectangular shape. Using an offset spatula, spread half of cinnamon filling into a thin, almost transparent layer on a strip of dough, making sure to leave a 1-inch border on all but the long bottom edge. Using a pastry brush, brush border with water along upper lip of the dough until slightly wet; this will act as a sealant later. Starting at bottom edge, roll up 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 dough; the water will help to fully seal. Using your hands, continue to roll log to double its length, about 22 inches. Make sure to keep width of the log consistent. Follow the same process for second strip of dough.

  4. Twist together dough logs in a spiral. Once fully twisted, connect ends together to form a ring shape; pinch to seal if needed. Place dough in prepared pan and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let 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.)

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

Make the cinnamon filling

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, salt, and vanilla until a uniform paste forms, about 2 minutes. 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.

Make the caramel crunch

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

Make the cream cheese icing

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, mix cream cheese on medium speed until very smooth. Reduce speed to low and add powdered sugar in 3 portions, mixing well after each addition, until a smooth paste forms. Stop mixer and scrape down sides of bowl. With mixer on low speed, slowly stream in milk and mix until icing is well combined and smooth. Mix in vanilla bean paste. This icing can be stored in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 4 days. Bring to room temperature before using.

  2. While cake is still cooling on the wire rack, drizzle icing over 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. If you're sticking true to Mardi Gras tradition, sprinkle sanding sugar over top and allow 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.


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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