At first sight, it comes across as, well, a little unusual. A large wreath-shaped cake bedazzled in vibrant shades of purple, green and gold -- there’s nothing subtle about it. It might be flavored simply with a touch of cinnamon sugar, or maybe it’s decked out with any of a number of creative fillings. Help yourself to a slice, or two -- just be careful you don’t accidentally bite into the plastic baby.
Behold the wonder that is the king cake. For many, a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras is simply not complete without it.
Largely drawn from Catholic tradition, Mardi Gras is the culmination of the Carnival season, a magical stretch of the calendar that spans from Jan. 6 (Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day) through Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the last hurrah before Ash Wednesday and the sobering start to Lent.
I try to get back to New Orleans whenever I can to celebrate Mardi Gras. When I can’t (more often than not), I’ll celebrate at home with friends. Over the years, I’ve found it’s next to impossible to find a local bakery that makes New Orleans-style king cakes, let alone knows what one is. And authentic as a mail-order cake may be, I’ve never had one that matched freshly baked. (In my experience, king cakes -- like most baked goods -- should never be sent through the mail. Even the best ones come out of the box looking a little traumatized; most are dry and as stiff as a stale fruitcake.)
So I’ll bake a few king cakes every year to celebrate the season. They take a little bit of effort but are well worth the time. And nothing beats the flavor of homemade.
Start with a rich brioche dough -- don’t skimp on the butter (please, save the diet for Lent). Stuff the dough with at least one filling -- besides flavor, it helps the cake stay moist. Personally, I prefer two fillings, just to keep it interesting: a crisp apple filling studded with toasted pecans and raisins (soak the raisins in rum for a little extra fun) and a whipped cream cheese filling for sheer gush. Roll up the dough, then give it a quick twist to give the fillings a braided appearance.
The cake bakes in almost no time. Puffed and golden-brown, baptize your creation with creamy glaze, then give it sparkle with a drizzle of colored sugars. And don’t forget to hide the baby inside.
Mardi Gras King Cake With Cream Cheese and Apple Fillings
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus rising times; Servings: 12 to 16
The cake can be adapted to any occasion by substituting or eliminating the colored sugars. Colored sugars and plastic king cake babies are generally available at baking supply stores, as well as online. For better flavor, rehydrate the raisins in a small saucepan, covered with spiced rum, over low heat just until plump and tender.
For the apple filling:
2 tablespoons butter
2 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced crosswise into ¼-inch slices
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
¼ cup raisins
½ cup toasted pecan pieces
For the cream cheese filling:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sugar
½ beaten egg (save the other half to make the egg wash for the cake)
For the cream cheese glaze:
2 ounces ( of an 8-ounce package) cream cheese
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon salt
¾ cup powdered sugar, sifted
For the brioche:
¾ cup milk, divided
1 package (2½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
⅓ cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
2 eggs, plus ½ beaten egg (use the remaining half egg leftover from the cream cheese filling), divided
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
3½ cups (15.75 ounces) bread flour, plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon salt
Purple, green and yellow colored sugars for decorating
Plastic baby, if desired
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, just until the apple starts to soften, 3 to 4 minutes (the slices should still be crisp). Remove from heat and stir in the raisins and toasted pecans. Spread the apple mixture onto a baking sheet to stop the cooking process and allow the apples to cool quickly, then cover and refrigerate until needed.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the cream cheese with the vanilla, salt and sugar. Add the beaten egg to the cream cheese mixture and beat until thoroughly combined. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a medium bowl using a hand mixer, whisk together the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt until completely combined. With the mixer running, add the sifted powdered sugar, one spoonful at a time, until fully incorporated.
In a small pan, heat one-half cup plus 2 tablespoons of milk over medium heat just until warmed. Remove from heat and pour the milk into a small bowl or measuring cup. Stir in the yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar, then set aside until the milk is foamy and the yeast is activated, about 10 minutes.
Whisk the 2 eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer using the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer) until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Stir in the yeast mixture and remaining one-third cup of sugar until fully incorporated.
If using a stand mixer, switch to the paddle attachment. With the mixer running, add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until incorporated.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. With the mixer running, add the flour mixture, one spoonful at a time, until fully incorporated.
Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until it is soft and somewhat silky (it’s a rich dough and won’t be entirely smooth), 5 to 7 minutes. Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl and lightly cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1½ hours.
Make an egg wash: Combine the remaining beaten half egg with the remaining 2 tablespoons of milk.
When the dough is doubled, punch it down (it will be very smooth and elastic) and roll it out onto a lightly floured surface into a 10-by-28-inch rectangle. Lightly score the dough lengthwise to divide the dough into 2 equal halves.
Spoon the apple filling down the length of one side, leaving a 1½-inch border on the top, bottom and sides. Repeat with the cream cheese filling down the other side of the dough, leaving a 1½-inch border on the top, bottom and each side. Lightly brush the edges and center of the dough (along the score) with the egg wash to moisten. Gently and carefully pull the dough over the cream cheese filling, sealing the edge of the dough along the score mark. Repeat with the apple filling. Press the sealed edges, making sure they are secure (otherwise the fillings could spill out while the cake bakes).
Gently twist the length of the dough to form a braid-like shape. Wrap the dough so it forms an oval wreath and gently press the edges together. Carefully transfer the wreath to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Brush the top of the wreath lightly with egg wash and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until almost doubled in volume, 45 minutes to an hour, or loosely cover and refrigerate the dough overnight, removing it from the refrigerator about 1 hour before baking for the dough to come to room temperature.
Heat the oven to 375 F. Lightly brush the wreath with any remaining egg wash and place the sheet in the oven.
Bake the cake until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (the toothpick will remain moist if it hits the cream cheese filling, but there should be no crumbs sticking to it), about 30 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway through baking for even color.
Allow the cake to cool slightly before it is frosted (if it’s too hot, the glaze will run off the cake and not adhere). Drizzle the glaze evenly over the cake, then lightly sprinkle over the colored sugars. If using the plastic baby, hide it somewhere in the cake (press the baby in through the bottom of the cake so as not to disturb the top or sides of the cake). Serve the cake warm or at room temperature.
Each of 16 servings: 387 calories; 7 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 86 mg cholesterol; 20 grams sugar; 224 mg sodium.