There are things we do for no good reason, or for any reason at all. Drummers. Tequila shots. Opening letters from the IRS. Foolish, fattening, futile actions nonetheless programmed into our psyches. This includes the making of King Cake.
With the exception of one dear friend from high school, my connections to New Orleans washed away after Katrina. I am a thousand miles by highway, a mile by height and a lifetime from the fifteen-year-old who first prowled the French Quarter, slurped a Hurricane and paid hard-earned yard-mowing money on a love charm from Marie Laveau’s. No one in Denver knows the difference between gumbo and étouffée, or gives a damn. This is a green chile town.
And, most importantly, I don’t even like cake. If there were a god, girls with no sweet tooth who forget to eat would never struggle with their weight. There is no god.
But it’s the Sunday before Mardi Gras, and as if under a spell, I’ve pulled out the beads and the plastic baby, unearthed the purple, gold and green sugars and strained my back hoisting the KitchenAid off the lower shelf of the pantry. WWOZ is playing Allen Toussaint’s “It’s a New Orleans Thing.”
Anywhere I go, there’s a bit of Tipatina. It doesn’t leave you just because you leave town. It’s the charm of the city, the Crescent City, in me.
If you’re going to make a King Cake, I can’t stop you. Laissez les bon temps, etc. I base mine on the recipe from Southern Living, because Southern Living. It’s as good as any of them.
Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake
makes 2 large cakes, serves 18
1 (16-ounce) container Greek yogurt or sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
4 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 envelopes) dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110°)
1 Tablespoon white sugar
2 large eggs
6 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
6 Tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins, if desired
1/2 cup chopped nuts, if desired
Powdered sugar glaze
Colored sparkling sugar
Combine the first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts. Set aside, and cool mixture to 110°. Stir together yeast, 1/2 cup warm water, and 1 tablespoon sugar in a 1-cup glass measuring cup and let stand 5 minutes.
Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, and 2 cups flour at medium speed with a stand mixer until smooth. Reduce speed to low, and gradually add enough remaining flour (4 to 4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms. If you do not have a stand mixer, make a King Cake lover buy you one. This is hard work.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, about half an hour or until dough is doubled in bulk. Punch down dough, and divide in half. Roll each portion into a 22 x 12″ rectangle. Spread softened butter evenly on each rectangle, leaving a 1″ border. Combine 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle evenly over butter on each.
Roll up each dough rectangle, jelly roll fashion, starting on a long side. Pinch the seam tightly and place, seam down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together. Repeat with the second roll. Cover and let rise in a warm place (an oven that’s been turned on briefly and then turned off is good for this, until doubled in bulk, about a half an hour.
Bake at 375° for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned and golden. While cakes are in the oven, make glaze by combining powdered sugar with milk or cream, mixing until desired consistency. Cool sheet pans on wire racks (about 10 minutes). Drizzle the glaze evenly over warm cakes. Alternate the colored sugars in alternating bands. Cool completely.
Plain Cream Cheese-Filled King Cake: Prepare each dough rectangle as directed. Omit the softened butter, cinnamon, raisins and nuts. Increase 1/2 cup sugar to 3/4 cup sugar. Beat 3/4 cup sugar, 2 (8-ounce) packages softened cream cheese, 1 large egg and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Spread cream cheese mixture evenly on each dough rectangle, leaving 1-inch borders. Follow recipe as directed.