Today is Mardi Gras! I should have posted this earlier, but this will give you plenty of time to prepare for next year...
The King Cake is a Mardi Gras Celebration cake. It was named after the Three Kings who came to visit Jesus on Epiphany, or the twelfth day of Christmas. This is the official start of Mardi Gras season and it lasts through what we know and celebrate as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, King Cake is eaten anytime throughout Mardi Gras season and these days, you can buy one any time of year.
The three royal colors of the cake-green, yellow and purple represent the three kings. These cakes are made for sharing and traditionally, a little plastic baby or bean is hidden somewhere in the cake. Whoever finds the baby is king for a day will have good luck for one year. They also must buy or make the next king cake! The baby or bean is thought to represent fertility, or new life. Some say it represents the baby Jesus who was found by the three kings on the twelfth day of Christmas, thus you must “find” the hidden baby in the cake.
If you have a bread maker, you can use it to make the brioche or sweet roll dough. I prefer to make the dough by hand and used the following recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart.
Middle-Class Brioche Dough
(as opposed to Rich Man’s or Poor Man’s which use more or less butter)
For the Sponge:
½ cup unbleached flour
2 tsp. instant yeast
½ cup whole milk, lukewarm (90 to 100 degrees F)
5 large eggs
3 cups unbleached flour
2 T granulated sugar
1¼ tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
1) To make the sponge, stir together the flour and yeast in a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Stir in the milk until all the flour is hydrated. Cover with plastic wrap and ferment for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the sponge rises and then falls when you tap the bowl.
2) To make the dough, add the eggs to the sponge and whisk (or beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment) until smooth. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add this mixture to the sponge and eggs and stir (or continue to mix with the paddle on low speed for about 2 minutes) until all the ingredients are hydrated and evenly distributed. Let this mixture rest for 5 minutes so that the gluten can begin to develop. Then, while mixing with a large spoon (or on medium speed with the paddle), gradually work in the butter, about one quarter at a time waiting until each addition of butter assimilates before adding more. This will take a few minutes. Continue mixing for about 6 more minutes, or until the dough is very well mixed. You will have to scrape down the bowl from time to time as the dough will cling to it. The dough will be very smooth and soft.
3) Transfer the dough to a greased sheet pan, spreading it to form a large, thick rectangle measuring about 6 inches by 8 inches. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil and cover the pan with plastic wrap. Put in the refrigerator and chill overnight or for at least 4 hours.
This dough makes enough for two king cakes- one for home and one to take to work!
Fruit and Cream Cheese Filling for 2 King Cakes
(You could use a 16 oz. can pie filling, but I chose to use my own pie filling…)
1 lb. fresh or frozen raspberries, blackberries, or boysenberries (or a mixture of these)
1 cup sugar
1 T unsalted butter
3 T Cornstarch
½ tsp. cinnamon
In a medium saucepan, stir together the ingredients for the fruit filling. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until thick and the mixture is no longer cloudy and turns glossy. Remove from heat, and cool to room temperature.
Cream cheese filling:
8 oz. cream cheese
¼ cup sugar
2 T flour
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
In a medium bowl, mix together the ingredients for the cream cheese filling. Set aside.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into two halves. Place one of the halves back in the refrigerator while working with the other. With well-floured hands, on a well floured sheet of parchment, shape the dough into a long sausage shape. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 30 by 9 inch rectangle. The dough will be sticky so it is best to do this while very firm and cold. Let the dough rest for a few minutes.
Spoon an inch-wide strip of cream cheese filling about 3 inches from one side down the length of the dough. Spoon the fruit filling alongside, about 3 inches from the other edge. Brush both sides of dough with the egg wash. Insert a bean if using one. (the baby needs to be inserted after baking or it will melt and you will have a very scary looking baby)
Fold one edge of dough over the cream cheese and fruit, then fold the other edge over, covering the fillings completely with dough. Form a ring or oval with the long tube of dough by lifting gently with a bench scraper and joining the two ends. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect. Transfer the parchment paper and the King Cake onto a pizza pan or large cookie sheet. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35o degrees. Brush with egg wash and cut vents into the cake. If you do not want to frost, you can sprinkle heavily with blotches of purple, green, and gold colored sugar at this time.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until cake is well risen and golden. Let cool on baking sheet, transfer to a serving tray after completely cooled and it is easier to handle.
Prepare a butter icing by melting 1 tablespoon of butter. Add milk and confectioner’s sugar to desired consistency plus a pinch of salt. You can either divide the frosting into 3 parts and color with purple, green, and gold or sprinkle the frosted cake with colored sugars. The cake should look over-decorated and even gaudy. Insert the plastic baby if using and enjoy!
Cinnamon Roll Filling
Another common king cake is to roll the dough out as described above and fill like a cinnamon roll: brush with melted butter, then sprinkle with a mixture of ½ cup brown sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon. Add pecans or walnuts if desired. Then, roll, starting from one long edge into a log. Form into a circle on a baking pan as described above. Butter icing goes very well on this version.