King Cakes are part of a popular tradition that celebrates the 12th day following the birth of Christ, during which the 3 Wise Men or Kings visited the Christ Child. The celebrations continue sometimes up to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras, in French), the day before Ash Wednesday when the Lenten Season begins. The custom of baking these “cakes” is in honor of the Three Kings, hence the name, “A King’s Cake.”
The custom includes baking a tiny porcelain or plastic baby inside the cake. King Cakes are usually served at parties, and the person who finds the baby in their slice of cake is supposed to host the party the next year. Instead of having a party, you could bake several smaller King Cakes and give them to your neighbors. The neighbor who receives the King Cake with the baby gets to bake them for the neighbors the following year.
King Cakes aren’t really cakes, but a rich danish (I’ll keep calling them cakes, though). Some King Cakes are baked without adding a filling, but I like to make mine with a rich and luscious cream cheese and cinnamon filling. After the cake is baked, the baby is inserted. Then the top of the cake is covered with a rich glaze and decorated in the traditional colors of purple, green and gold.
These colors have a special meaning as well. One explanation is that the official Mardi Gras colors were selected in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanoff, whose house colors were purple, green and gold. Another explanation is that the colors purple, green and gold were used by Catholic Church throughout history, and the colors represent Justice (Purple), Faith (Green), and Power (Gold).
This recipe takes some time to make, but it’s worth it in the end. Give it a try and let me know how you like it.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup white, granulated sugar
- 8 oz. sour cream
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water (98-105 degrees)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white, granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
- 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 1 egg
- 1/8 cup white, granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cinnamon Filling Ingredients:
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
- 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1/4 cup orange juice or milk
- Green sugar sprinkles
- Purple sugar sprinkles
- Yellow sugar sprinkles
- One tiny plastic or porcelain baby (about 2 inches long)
Make the dough:
In a small microwave-safe bowl, place the butter and sugar. Cook for 1-2 minutes in the microwave until the butter melts. Transfer to a small mixing bowl. Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the sour cream. Set aside to cool.
In another small bowl, mix together the yeast, warm water and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar. Set aside to allow the yeast to proof. It should be very bubbly after five minutes; if not, then discard the mixture and start over. NOTE: Water that is too hot will kill the yeast. The water should feel as warm as the temperature of your skin.
Place the egg into the bowl of a large stand mixer (such as a KitchenAid). Use the paddle attachment to slightly beat the egg.
The photo below shows two eggs–I doubled my recipe when I made this so I had enough cakes to give away to friends.
Mix in the sour cream mixture and proofed yeast.
Slowly mix in the flour, one cup at a time. NOTE: If you live in a low humidity environment, you may need less flour, about 2 1/2 cups. If you live in humid area, you may need slightly more than 3 cups of flour.
After the flour has been roughly mixed with the wet ingredients, switch to the dough hook.
Turn your mixer to medium-high speed and knead for 5 minutes. NOTE: If you are kneading by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. After kneading, place the dough into a greased bowl (clear works best so you can see if the dough has doubled in size); place in a warm place to rise until doubled.
While the dough is rising, make the cream cheese and cinnamon fillings.
Make the Cream Cheese Filling:
In a small mixing bowl, beat together the egg, sugar and cream cheese. Mix on high until there are no more lumps and the filling is smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Cinnamon filling: In a small bowl, mix the cinnamon filling ingredients together. Set aside.
Make the Glaze:
Mix together the sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and just half of the orange juice. Mix until smooth.
You want the glaze to be slightly thin but not runny. Add more orange juice if you need to thin it out more.
Put it all together:
After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down. Place onto a floured surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle, roughly 18×12 inches.
Roughly mark lines in the dough to separate it into thirds (do NOT cut through the dough). Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the OUTER sections into diagonal strips about 1 inch wide; these strips are what you will use to create a woven or braided look for the top of the King Cake. NOTE: Make sure you do not cut through the middle third of the rectangle.
Spread the cream cheese mixture down the middle of the rectangle. Sprinkle the cinnamon mixture on top of the cream cheese mixture.
Fold the strips of dough over the fillings, alternating sides. Overlap the strips to form a braided or woven look.
Tuck the ends of the dough underneath the end; use any extra dough to ensure both ends of the King Cake are sealed (to keep the filling in while baking).
This is how you’d make a round King Cake.
Roll out two pieces of dough about 16 inches in diameter.
Cut one piece of dough into strips, like you’re cutting a pizza.
Place the uncut round piece onto a baking sheet. Place the cut pieces of dough underneath the edge of the uncut piece (pointed part facing out), going all around the side (it will look like a large sun with rays pointing out). Press along the edges of the cut pieces to the seal them to the uncut circle.
Spread the cream cheese filling around the edge of the uncut circle of dough. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar filling on top of the cream cheese. Fold each cut piece inward, pressing down at the pointed tip to seal the dough (you will have a small “well” of dough in the middle).
Into the small well, pour more cream cheese filling. Top with cinnamon filling.
Carefully lift the shaped dough and place onto a large baking sheet. Spray the top of the King Cake (dough) lightly with butter flavored cooking spray, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm place to rise again until doubled.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until nicely browned.
Glaze the King Cake and Decorate:
While the King Cake is still warm, spread a thin layer of the glaze on top.
Decorate with the sugar sprinkles, alternating the colors.