Bake Like a Royal: Homemade King Cake - No. 74
A story, a recipe, and a poem, with my sincere apologies to Clement Clarke Moore
First, a poem
It’s right after Christmas and all though my house,
Not a creature is stirring – not even a mouse!
The panettone sits by the toaster with care,
And leftover sweet rolls, and bagels, and sliced bread are still there.
When back in the pantry there arose such a clatter,
That I grabbed all my carbs to see what was the matter.
Cornbread for New Year’s, and biscuits with ham!
(…I’ll get back to salads and green shakes when I can.)
But wait just a minute; don’t break a sweat,
We have 12 Days of Christmas! I’m not done with carbs, yet!
I’ve not yet baked a King Cake, don’t you see,
Like the ones made in Mobile and N’Orleans for Epiphany.
A cake to celebrate and remind us of traditions.
So, let’s wait a week for cleanses, diets, and resolutions…
EACH YEAR THIS TIME I THINK I’M DONE with holiday baking and can give flour a rest. And then there’s king cake, and so I grab the butter and yeast, and begin…
This old-world cinnamon-filled yeast cake with its new-world glaze of green, gold, and purple isn’t something I grew up on in Nashville, but I wish that I had. It’s a big old sweet roll sliced in New Orleans and up and down the Gulf Coast where Mardi Gras is celebrated, anywhere French and Spanish tastes have influenced the food, or in far-off places where ex-pats have moved and taken their New Orleans foodways with them.
Now, the sweet story of king cake
Ring-shaped cakes were once baked with figs and honey for the Roman feast of Saturnalia, a celebration of the winter solstice. And they found their place in Christianity, when the king cake or Gateau des Rois as it is called in France, was baked for Epiphany, on January 6, the Twelfth Night, to commemorate the twelve-day journey of the three wise men to see the newborn Jesus.
In the 1900 cookbook, The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, it says the cake was popularized in New Orleans because the French there adapted so many of the customs of their Spanish relatives and vice versa.
In Spain a similar cake is called Rosca de Reyes and made with candied fruit to resemble a jeweled king’s crown. In Portugal, a king cake is filled with pine nuts soaked first in port. And in southern France where brioche dough was born, a bean was hidden inside the king cake, and whoever found the bean represented the family in church or was ‘’king for a day.’’
Today, in America, king cake tradition continues thanks mostly to marketing and the fact that you can order a king cake and have it shipped right to you, Mardi Gras beads and all. But that’s not likely the real king cake...
The first king cake in America was baked by the Basque settlers
When most of us think of colonial America, we think of the 13 colonies along the East Coast, but I learned from researching American cake that there was colonization of a different sort going on in what would become the city of New Orleans.
Here the French, Spanish, Basque, and Haitian food traditions collided in a wonderful way creating Creole cooking, according to Liz Williams, culinary historian and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The first king cake in New Orleans was brought in 1718 by Basque settlers from their homeland straddling southern France and northern Spain near the Pyrenees mountains.
In New Orleans back then, she said, to bake a cake like this it was difficult to find wheat flour so it was imported from France. ‘’So you had flour that was moldy and full of insects when it got here. And expensive. So it’s a wonder recipes from New Orleans even contained flour.’’
What flour you could find was expensive, too, so cooks used less of it, which made the bread and cake doughs wetter than those in Europe, Liz said. ‘’And before commercial yeast, the yeast in the air in New Orleans in the 18th Century was different than that in France. It resulted in a much more porous and fluffy bread.’’
Or cake. Because cakes back then, before baking soda or baking powder, were raised with yeast and looked a lot like bread.
And the fact that this cake contained butter as well as imported spices made it not only celebratory but memorable.
Remembering and reinventing King Cake
Baking is filled with stories of memory and migration and the people who move out of a region and into another with recipes in hand. In the South, the Great Migration and tea cakes and cornbread come to mind.
And more recently another migration - the one after Hurricane Katrina.
Bronwen Wyatt had come to Tulane from Annapolis, Maryland, pursuing degrees in art and English, but after graduation and Hurricane Katrina, she moved to Maine where her brother was a chef. She helped him with baking and made her way back to New Orleans via San Francisco, working in the pastry kitchen at La Petite Grocery where she first baked a king cake for the staff. At the restaurant Shaya she baked a Babka King Cake, and she would develop the king cake recipes for Willa Jean.
I caught up with Bronwen via phone last week as she prepared to crank out custom king cakes decorated with her swoopy floral style. She now works for herself after COVID hit the Nola restaurant world hard, launching Bayou Saint Cake, and she’s enjoying the fun of recreating king cake with sweet potatoes and cardamom and other new flavors. You can custom order them from her if you live in the New Orleans area. She doesn’t ship.
But the recipe I use to bake my king cake is from my friend Judy Walker, the former food editor of The Times-Picayune. It comes from Cooking Up A Storm, a book Judy wrote after Katrina with fellow New Orleans food writer Marcelle Bienvenu to help readers locate favorite recipes that were lost during the hurricane.
It is an easy brioche-like dough to work with and makes a beautiful ring-shaped coffee cake in which you can place a baby or bean once it is baked. You can garnish it with the festive purple, yellow, and green so associated with Mardi Gras, or do as the early settlers did, and how I prefer this cake, and leave it unadorned, and serve it warm with good coffee, on Epiphany, Mardi Gras or most any holiday of the year.
But either way, you can’t go wrong. You’re baking up history and getting one more slice of the holidays!
(And sorry about that poem!)
The Recipe… how to make king cake at home
New Orleans King Cake
I baked king cake this week using King Arthur bread flour, needing only 2 1/2 cups for the dough to pull together. Also, I’ve amended Judy’s recipe and the one I shared in American Cake to melt the butter and let it cool slightly before adding to the yeast mixture. When baking yeast breads, especially in cold weather when ingredients tend to cool off quickly, it helps to have a good digital thermometer to make sure you are adding water, milk and melted butter that is somewhere between 105 and 115 degrees, that warm and cozy spot where yeast particularly likes to grow so the dough rises. Another thing, you’ll notice in the photo in my book American Cake, that the king cake is a circle, rounded, no slit in the top to let the goodies bubble out. This was the preference of the food stylist and photographer, and you can absolutely make the cake this way. But I like to slice the top of the dough with a sharp knife - or a razor blade - to expose the insides so it bakes up with these gorgeous ridges. And I sprinkled a little cardamom on top of the filling. You can roll up raisins or cranberries, chopped pecans or sliced almonds, even orange or lemon zest along with the cinnamon and sugar, whatever you like. And, because most people expect the king cakes of today to be garnished with festive sugars, I did so. Bronwen Wyatt says the colorful sugars are as much a part of New Orleans king cake as their rich history. Forever the purist, I prefer it plain. What about you?
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F)
1 package active dry yeast (1.25 ounces)
1/4 cup warm whole milk (105 to 115 degrees F)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 to 3 cups bread flour, plus flour for kneading the dough as needed
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1. For the dough, pour the warm water into a large bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the warm milk, butter, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Add 1 cup of the flour and blend well. Stir in the eggs and the remaining flour to make a soft dough. At the end of the blending, you may need to use your hands to work in the flour.
2. Lightly flour a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add a little more flour if needed if the dough sticks. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly rubbed with soft butter. Turn the dough to grease the top of the dough. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
3. For the filling, punch down the dough with your hands. Transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and with your hands or a floured rolling pin roll the dough to a 24- by 9-inch rectangle. Brush with the melted butter. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and sprinkle this mixture evenly over the butter to within 1/2 inch of the edges. Sprinkle with the cardamom.
4. Beginning at the long end, roll the dough up tightly, as for a jelly roll. Along the seam, blot some water lightly so that the dough edges stick together and pinch them together well. Carefully pick up the rolled dough and place it, seam-side down, on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bring together the two ends to make a circle, seal the ends with a little water, and pinch the ends together. Using a sharp knife or razor blade, slice open the middle of the circle all the way around, slicing through layers and almost to the bottom of the dough. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to rise and double in size, about 45 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When preheated, uncover the dough and place the pan in the oven. Bake until it is lightly browned all over, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the baking sheet with a spatula to cool 15 minutes on a wire rack. (If you want to insert a plastic baby figurine or bean, push it into the underside of the cake now if you didn’t slit the top before baking, or push it into one of the grooves of the top if you slit it.)
6. Slice and serve. Or drizzle with the Mardi Gras Glaze (below), then sprinkling with purple, yellow, and green sugars. Store at room temperature for up to a week, but it is best served the day it is baked.
Mardi Gras Glaze
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 to 3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, if desired
Purple, green and yellow sugar sprinkles to garnish, if desired
Place the sugar in a medium bowl, and whisk in enough milk to make a smooth glaze. Add almond extract, if desired. Drizzle the cake with the glaze, and sprinkle with the sugars in alternating bands. Allow 20 minutes for the glaze to set before serving.
How do you make King Cake?
More great American cake
Want to learn more about those early American cakes like King Cake? Gingerbread, Great Cake, an early Cheesecake, Pound Cake, and Moravian Sugar Cake? The stories and recipes are found in my book, American Cake!
This Thursday for subscribers:
It’s another King Cake! But a far simpler version using frozen puff pastry like they serve in Paris. I use that all-butter puff pastry from Trader Joe’s and share a few more of my favorite Trader Joe’s finds to get cooking simplified in the new year!
Have a great week! Laissez les bon temps rouler!