The King Cake Tradition

Occasionally, I'm perfectly happy that I was raised Catholic. Ideals of tradition and ritual are integral much of the art and food that I love. Enter the King Cake.


Did you know that the 12 days off Christmas are actually the 12  days following December 25th? After these 12 days in which we are to imagine the wise men traveling, is the Feast of the Epiphany. Or as I like to think of it, the beginning of King Cake season. Between this feast day and Mardi Gras the devout are intended to use up all of their more decadent food products, perhaps left over from the Christmas season, in order to properly observe Lent. These cakes take lots of forms throughout the world, the name King Cake comes to the USA through translation of the French and Spanish traditions in New Orleans.  

While I don't know any contemporary Catholics who get rid of all of their milk, butter, and eggs ahead of Lenten fasting. The opposite is usually true, I know my family often relies on protein heavy egg dishes to get them through a meatless Friday. BUT this tradition has brought us the King Cake. A yeasted, enriched cake is the perfect way to use up a larder and pantry full of rich dairy products and sugars. 

So when I was staring into the abyss of my fridge wondering what to do with caramelized white chocolate leftover from my Christmas dessert and a Meyer lemon puree from the day before it suddenly hit me. Time for a cake!  You can find a recipe for the king cake I made, if you want to try it for yourself. Grab some sweet things, preferably leftover from something else, for the filling and icing and get baking.

But first let's talk about the baby. Personally, I find it creepy to to cut into a pastry/cake and find a plastic or ceramic baby. And even creepier now that bakeries have to put the baby on the outside to avoid being liable for the chocking hazard. Originally people stuck and uncooked bean or a nut inside prior to baking which I guess is less strange, but still. The traditions I've read conflict with the reasons for this surprise. Either the recipient will be lucky or terribly unlucky for the next year. But the only good reason to insert non-edible objects  into perfectly awesome cake is, of course, from New Orleans. The recipient of the baby was the one responsible for hosting the next night's Mardi Gras party. 


My King Cake 2016!

For the dough:

  • 3/4 cup buttermilk

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons or 1 packet of active dry yeast

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 4 cups all purpose or bread flour

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 4 egg yolks, room temperature, (reserve 1 of these whites for an egg wash later)

  • 1  whole egg, room temperature

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • a few dashes of nutmeg, bakers discretion

  • a few dashes of cinnamon, bakers discretion

  1. Heat buttermilk gently on the stove top or in microwave at half power, until just steaming.
  2. Stir 1 tablespoon of you sugar into the buttermilk and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile,  melt your butter in a medium mixing bowl or 2 cup glass measuring cup. Add spices and vanilla directly to butter let cool to room temperature.  
  4. Place flour and remaining sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add yeast-buttermilk. (If this mixture is not foamy you did not activate the yeast. probably the temperature of the milk was too hot. Discard and try again.) Turn ON the mixer to stir/low and allow to combine slightly. 
  5. Add the egg yolks, whole egg, and salt to your butter-spice mixture, be sure your butter has cooled enough that it won't start to cook the egg whites. Whisk slightly to combine. Slowly add this to the mixer while on stir/low. If your mixer doen't allow any room to add ingredients while ON then pour in the egg-butter-spices in thirds, stirring to combine in-between. Increase speed to medium/medium-high. Let the mixer run until the dough is smooth, elastic and shiny. Work by hand if the flour at the very bottom is not mixing properly. Lift the rest of the dough up with one hand and sprinkle some warm water on the stubborn flour to moisten it then return the dough and turn the mixer back on.
  6. Form dough into a ball and place in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a relatively warm and draft-free place for 1 1/2 hours. When it has grown to 2-3 times its original size and has visible air pockets it is ready for the next phase.
My King Cake after filling and shaping.

My King Cake after filling and shaping.

Filling your cake. You want any leftover thing that is sweet and tangy or sweet and spicy. If there's nothing like that in your fridge/pantry. Fill with a thin layer of jam/marmalade or a mixture of softened butter, cinnamon and brown sugar.

My filling: 

  • 1/3 cup meyer lemon puree. Found this great technique on Epicurious. Excited to try it againwith a blood orange or clementine.
  • 1/3 cup cultured cream cheese. A new product at Olde Town Butcher downtown (I'll edit this after my next trip there with the brand for anyone not in Fredericksburg.)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar.

How to fill and shape:

  1. Dust a clean counter top with flour. Gently punch the center dough inside the bowl then release it from the sides of the bowl by running your hand between the dough and bowl as if it were a spatula.Pull the dough out onto floured surface.
  2. Gently push and pull the dough until it is roughly a rectangle. If it springs back a lot when you attempt this step, let it rest on the counter for 15 minutes covered with a clean tea towel.
  3. Lightly roll out the dough with a floured rolling pin until it is at least 18 inches wide and 9 inches  deep, with the long side parallel with the edge of your counter.  Roll larger if possible without tearing or sticking to your counter.
  4. Using an offset spatula or your fingers gently spread your chosen filling across entire surface.
  5. Beginning with the long edge closest to you roll the dough up as tightly as you can without tearing.
  6.  Bake sure your roll is not sticking to your surface. Again with the rolling pin roll up and down your rolled tube until it is more of a rectangle, at least 3 inches deep. 
  7. With a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut this rectangle into two (if your filling is very wet) or three pieces.
  8. Twist or braid your long ropes of filled dough by gently draping your ropes around each other in a spiral or braided pattern. Find a video tutorial here for braiding if you are unsure of what to do, try for even more strands if you are feeling awesome.
  9. Line a baking sheet or sheet pan with parchment paper. Gently lift your braid onto the parchment and loop the two ends toward each other. Pinch the ends of the dough into each other at neatly as possible, or squish it all into one spot and hope it comes out looking like a knot. If you want to put a ceramic baby/nut/uncooked bean inside your cake place it deep into a ribbon of the filling now.
  10. Cover lightly with a floured tea towel or saran wrap that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Set back in the warm, non-drafty place for 45 minutes-1 hour. If you want to preserve the ring shape place an oiled glass canning jar in the center so it doesn't rise into that area. 
  11. Preheat oven during the second rise to 335 degrees, or midway between 325 and 350 if you have an analog oven knob.
  12. Bake for 20 minutes. There should be slightly golden on the surface and near the base it should feel dry to the touch. If your cake is getting dark brown at the edges but is still squishy, turn your oven temp down to 325. If it is not yet golden or fragrant turn your oven up to 350. Remove the canning jar now if you have used one.
  13. Bake for up to 30 minutes more, checking every 10 minutes. You will know it is done when the cuts through your rolled layers begin to look flaky like pastry, most of the surface is golden brown, and it feels soft but dry at the base on the interior of your dough crown.
  14. Move, still on the parchment paper, to a cooling rack. Once completely cool, ice and decorate as desired. As mentioned above I used some caramelized white chocolate that was leftover from Christmas, which is a great technique that was popularized in the states by David Lebovitz a few years ago.
The King Cake should look similar to this when it is ready to come out of the oven.

The King Cake should look similar to this when it is ready to come out of the oven.


The typical icing and decorating technique in the US is a powdered sugar frosting, either colored with food dyes or sprinkled with colored sugar crystals. As I mentioned above some leftover caramelized white chocolate was  part of my impetus to make a king cake, so that's what is pictured above. But if you want a powdered sugar frosting look below.

  • 2 cups powdered/confectioners sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons water
  1. Put all ingredients in a medium bowl. 
  2. Whisk until smooth.

And that's it! I used just half of the recipe above to decorate this King Cake for a catering order, because I love the look of the braids flaking.