Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to make something traditional to go with the day. I made a (delicious) French galette du roi last year, but this year I was after something a bit more colourful than brown puff pastry when it is so grey and cold outside. Don’t get me wrong – I love a galette. We even shared one at work yesterday (news flash: I didn’t find the hidden figure, so I didn’t win the golden crown this year…) but there’s a limit to how exciting it is ever going to look.
And that’s where Louisiana’s King Cake comes in. You want colour? This guy is going to give it to your in full green, gold and purple Technicolor glory!
The King Cake is associated with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras. From 6 January, folk will get together for parties and serve up a King Cake. A key tradition if you want to be authentic is to get hold of a small plastic toy baby. Said baby should be baked into the cake, and then you invite your friends round to share it (hence the party).
The person that gets the slide with the baby will receive good fortune, and he or she will host the party next year. If you’re worried about plastic melting in the cake during baking, you could just push the toy inside the cake once it has cooled and before you ice it.
And if you are terrified about the choking hazard that said baby could present and you’re worried about serving up a deathtrap cake, you could instead hid a whole pecan or hazelnut in the cake. All of the fun, and actually a whole lot less risky.
The sugar on top is really important. Those colours matter – they are the official colours of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They appear in beads, costumes, body art (!), decorations and, of course, on top of King Cakes. The history of Mardi Gras suggests that this colour palette can be traced back to 1872, when the King of the Carnival selected them. The gold symbolises power (rather than the more common association with wealth). Purple stands for justice, in terms of what is the right thing to do. And finally we have green, standing for faith.
Rather than going to the hassle of buying fancy coloured sanding sugar, I made my coloured sugar by putting a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar in a jam jar, then adding some gel food colouring I had diluted with a little vodka (you could use water). Put the top on the jar and shake it like crazy – and voilà, you have evenly-coloured sugar. I repeated the process with some pearl sugar to get some bigger chunks, and I think they worked out pretty well. For the gold, I added some strong yellow colour, but also some edible gold lustre powder, so it really does sparkle. Afterwards just spread the (damp) sugar on a plate and leave it somewhere warm to dry, then crumble it with your hands. It’s easy but probably worth doing the night before so you’re all set to go when you want to actually decorate the cake with lavish sprinkles of jolly colours. If you’re fed up with the cold and grey, massing about with rainbow sugar will cheery you up.
If you’re wondering about that sugar and thinking you might just skip it, don’t! The cake itself looks fairly ordinary, even with the white icing, but once all that sugar is on top….well, the whole thing is just transformed in an instant into a dazzling riot of colour and sparkle. It certainly brightened up my morning!
I made this cake using an adapted cinnamon bun recipe, so the dough is made with scalded milk to which I added butter, then left that to cool down. I then made the dough, swapping out cardamom for ground nutmeg, and filled the cake with a buttery cinnamon-brown sugar mixture. I’ve seen some suggestions about using chopped pecan nuts and even sultanas, so if those are your thing add them – they will taste great. I’ve also used a basic water icing for the glaze. You can make it richer with some cream, or even work cream cheese into the icing (or go more extreme and work cream cheese into the filling as well). This is a celebratory cake – you should be able to go fairly crazy with it. Just be sure to use those three colours!
I’m sure there is endless variety in terms of exactly how this cake should be made, and of course there must be people who swear that their recipe and no other is the real deal. Great, but my version tastes good and still looks very jolly, so I am happy with it.
And how does this lot taste? It’s delicious. In fact, it’s just like a giant cinnamon bun!
To make a King Cake:
Note: you can see how to shape the cake in this video, but I used my own recipe not the one listed there.
For the dough:
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 60g butter
• 1 large egg
• 350g strong white flour
• 50g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• milk, to brush before baking
For the cinnamon filling:
• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• optional – chopped pecans or sultanas
• 1 small toy plastic baby or ceramic figure (optional)
• 150g icing sugar
• a few spoonfuls of water or double cream, to bind
• green, purple and golden granulated sugar, to sprinkle
1. Put the milk in a pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, stir until it has melted, then leave to cool until lukewarm. Once cooled, add the egg and beat well.
2a. If using a bread machine: Throw the milk mixture and the rest of the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!
2b. If making by hand: put the dry dough ingredients into a large bowl. Add the milk mixture. Stir with a spoon at first, then transfer to a floured worktop and knead until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (this could take up to 10 minutes). Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with cling film, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. When done, remove the cover and knock back the dough.
3. Make the cinnamon butter – put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth.
4. Time to assemble the cake. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Roll into a large rectangle of around 30 x 50cm. Spread with the cinnamon butter. If you’re using nuts and/or sultanas, sprinkle them on top. Roll from the long side into a tight sausage (the sausage should be 50cm long).
5. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper. Transfer the sausage to the tray, and form into a ring. Join the ends as best you can – you can cover the join with icing later, but try to ensure there is a decent join, and moisten the overlap with some milk to stop the filling leaking out during baking.
6. Take some kitchen scissors. Start to snip into the outside of the ring at regular spaces – you want to go in about 1/3 of the way. Cover loosely with lightly oiled cling film or place in a large plastic bag, and leave to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the loaf with the milk and bake for around 25 minutes until puffed up and golden but not too dark. I recommend turning the tray after about 10 minutes to get an even rise and colour. You might want to lower the temperature towards the end of baking if the colour looks ready after about 20 minutes. When baked, remove from the oven and cover with a clean teatowel – this will trap steam and keep the cake soft. Leave to cool. If using a plastic baby, a ceramic figure or a pecan nut – press this through the base of the cooled cake.
8. Make the icing. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, and add two tablespoons of water or cream. Mix well, then keep adding a little more water or cream until the icing is still thick but will flow slowly. Spread the icing on top of the cake, then sprinkle straight away with the coloured sugar.