I have very (very) fond memories of King Cakes and Mardi Gras in Texas and Louisianna. My super-fabulous assistant Amanda, when I lived in TX, was from LA and introduced me to all-things-wonderful about the culture. I was also fortunate enough to work in LA over the years, and so was able to really embrace the very real charm of the place (who can resist someone referring to you as “baby” – everywhere?).
For anyone unfamiliar with the King Cake, it’s a rich, brioche-like bread, formed into a ring shape, most often filled with a cream-cheese or almond filling, though cinnamon is popular, and I’m sure artisan chefs have come up with all sorts of other takes on the classic. It is most typically decorated with the green, gold and purple colors of Mardi Gras. If you live in the South, and particularly Louisianna, the tradition is based on French culture – and it starts with Epiphany, and ends at Fat Tuesday (the day before Lent begins), also known as Mardi Gras. Initially a “cake” to use up the rich ingredients of butter and eggs prior to the austerity of Lent, it is now more traditionally a treat that is shared at get-togethers during this period – the person who gets the “baby” hidden in the cake, is both lucky, and also required to provide the cake at the next gathering. I sometimes think that the “luck” is that you are required to get together with friends again.
In TX, we were able to get pretty wonderful KIng Cake. During the season, there were bakeries that had various versions available. In the desert southwest, the closest is a mail-order offering. Or – the opportunity to bake one at home.
In the past, I’ve tried a few different recipes. Most recently, one of Emeril’s – which should have been better than it turned out. But, the lure of the King Cake endures. With the season of Ordinary Time looming, it seemed perfect to try again. KAF offered a new take – a Mini King Cake.
I changed up the recipe, because of either things I had on hand or personal preference. Mine has a filling, and some different flavorings. Let me just say, you really should try this.
The dough is kind of like a lemony brioche. Rich with butter and eggs, though my version is a bit simpler than the classic brioche.
Basically, all of the dough ingredients are combined, and then kneaded, together in a stand mixer (alternatively, a food processor would work well – and of course, this can be done by hand). Like other rich doughs, it will come up the dough hook, but not completely come clear of the bowl as it kneads. This is because it needs to remain a relatively sticky dough – all a part of that rich mixture. It will take 8-10 minutes at a medium-high speed for the dough to be ready. It’s placed in an oiled bowl to rise for about an hour.
While my kitchen is relatively warm, the dough still did not rise all that much (nothing like double). As the dough sat, I made my filling. The original recipe did not include any kind of filling. But since I like King Cake with a cream cheese filling… well, I decided to make one.
I mixed 1 8-oz package of softened cream cheese with 1 c confectioners sugar. Since I needed it to be firm enough to get wrapped in the dough eventually, I formed it into a roll and placed it in the freezer while the dough was going through it’s original rising period.
I wasn’t as exact as I might have been, but it was pretty much ok. I’m just not that cranky about that. Then I roughly divided up the filling. With just those few minutes in the freezer, the cream cheese mixture held its shape so that it could have the dough wrapped around it. Plus that shape makes it fairly easy to divide it up pretty evenly.
The rolls get shaped by putting the filling in the middle, then gently wrapping the dough around, and placing seam-side down in the prepared muffin pan. Using my handy plastic top to hold in heat and moisture, I let the rolls rise for about an hour again. Because the filling was cold, and the nature of the dough – they really didn’t rise that much.
After another hour, the rolls are then placed in the oven for about 40 minutes total at 350 degrees. If they start to get brown, you can tent foil over for the last 20 minutes. The rolls are then taken out and cooled.
Finally, a simple confectioner’s sugar glaze is made, and the tops are dipped in just to coat. (there really is only enough of the icing for a light glaze, you could make more/thicker if that’s what you like) (my glaze isn’t very white because of the vanilla)
These were a big hit. If I get around to making more this year, there are a couple of other ideas I’d like to try. How about a King Cake Monkey bread? Small balls of dough, with a filling, all put together in a ring mold? Or you could make the mini Cakes, but arrange them in a ring as well? But any way you make them, it’s a fun and delicious tradition.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!