Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the festive end to the Mardi Gras season, kicking off the start of Lent. My 8-year-old is our household's Mardi Gras king this year: He found the plastic Egyptian soldier in our king cake! The prize trinket is typically a plastic baby, but I keep forgetting to procure plastic babies — last year the trinket was another Playmobil soldier.
In the southeastern U.S. king cakes are a treat throughout the season. Whomever finds the baby or other trinket in their slice is named king or queen for the day, and may have to host the party or bring the cake next year.
I confess, I've never had authentic king cake. I've made it twice in two years, and that's the extent of my experience. People have strong opinions about their king cakes, and this is just one version. A delicious
version: my cake-averse child inhaled it and my guests wanted leftovers.
It's a slightly sweet yeast bread rolled up with a tangy cream cheese and cinnamon filling, then glazed
and decorated with colored sugar. Crunchy topping aside, it's more like a breakfast pastry than what you expect from a cake. Enough so, at least, that I let my kids have seconds for Sunday breakfast.
This one takes just over 2 hours to make from start to finish, but most of that is rising time. If you use a mixer to knead the dough, it isn't much work at all. The hardest part is joining the roll of dough into a ring. Mine came out a little wonky on one side, but it doesn't matter. Kids can help with any part of this — except, perhaps, hiding the trinket!
The baby (or Egyptian soldier or whatever) goes into the cake after
baking. You can slip it in through the bottom of the cake. Do be careful with choking hazards: Our Playmobil figures are a little big, but I don't have to worry about anyone swallowing it. Lego toys, for example, are out of the question.
Our cake this year is bright but tame compared with last year's happily lurid version. We went with untinted frosting and let the colored sugar take central stage. Last year, we used colored icing and colored sugar for a much bolder look. And if you've seen many king cakes, you know bolder is better.
If your family isn't familiar with Mardi Gras celebrations, National Geographic has a few G-rated videos (trust me, do not just search for "Mardi Gras New Orleans" on YouTube). We liked this one
on Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina and Carnival around the world, and this one
that explains a little about preparation for Mardi Gras, including king cakes.
Adapted from Food.com
. If you don't have a baby figurine, substitute another small toy or even something edible, like a large bean or nut.
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces light sour cream or Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 envelope yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 1/4 cups cake flour (see tips below) or all-purpose flour
8 ounces light cream cheese, softened
1 egg white, lightly beaten with a fork
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Frosting and decorations
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 to 3 tablespoons orange juice
yellow, green, and purple food coloring (optional)
yellow, green, and purple sugar (or make your own, see tips below)
small plastic baby or other figurine
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine butter, sour cream, 3 tablespoons sugar, and salt just until butter melts. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, combine yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar, and warm water and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the melted butter mixture, the egg, 1/2 cup of flour, and the cinnamon and beat 1-2 minutes until smooth. Gradually stir in the remaining flour. Knead the dough in the mixer or by hand on a floured board until smooth and elastic.
Set dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat, and cover with plastic wrap or a towel. Let rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.
While dough rises, make the filling: Combine the cream cheese, egg white, white sugar, salt, and vanilla in a bowl and mix until smooth. In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar and cinnamon.
Punch down dough and roll out to 10- by 28-inch rectangle. Spread the cream cheese over the dough, and sprinkle with cinnamon brown sugar. Roll up dough starting with the long side to make a long roll and pinch the edges to seal closed.
Oil a baking sheet or cover it with parchment paper or silicone mat. Transfer the roll to the baking sheet and form it into a circle, pinching the short ends together. Cover and let rise 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. After cake has risen, bake it for 15-20 minutes. Check on it after 15 minutes — if it's browning but needs to bake longer, cover it loosely with foil.
As cake cools, make the glaze: Stir orange juice into powdered sugar, a spoonful at a time, until you get the consistency you want. Tint the glaze with food coloring if you wish. Spread glaze over cake and sprinkle on colored sugar.
Don't forget the baby! Carefully lift up the edge of the cake and insert the figurine into the cake from the bottom. Laissez le bons temps rouler!
This makes a light, soft cake, and it's easy to make your own substitute. Scoop 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into a measuring cup and then fill with regular flour to make one cup of substitute cake flour — be sure to sift it well.
To make your own, put 1/4 cup of sugar into each of three plastic, zip-top bags. Add a drop or two of food coloring in each bag, seal, and shake vigorously until the color is evenly distributed.