King Cakes are a frosted sweet bread—a delicious cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry—with a hidden bean or tiny plastic baby baked inside. The cakes are traditionally eaten between Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) and Mardi Gras. Try our editor’s King Cake recipe—and learn more about this tradition.
What Are King Cakes?
Epiphany, January 6, is the traditional end of the Christmas season, but it also kicks off Carnival season—which is a time to eat, drink and be merry before the fasting of Lent. The last day of Carnival is Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” As Easter is a moveable feast date, the actual date of Mardi Gras also changes. But it’s always 46 days before Easter and the day prior to Ash Wednesday when Lent begins.
In old English tradition, King Cakes were often served on the eve of Epiphany, popularity known as Twelfth Night, but today it’s any time during the Carnival Season up through midnight on Mardi Gras itself. (This is where the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from—counting from Christmas Eve.)
The “King Cake” takes its name from the three kings who visit the Christ child. The man or woman who finds the baby Jesus, bean, or trinket inside is the king or queen for the day. Whoever gets the King Cake baby is expected to buy the next cake for these get-togethers.
Janice Stillman, editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, lived in New Orleans for several years. Hence, she’s made several King Cakes! This recipe is her favorite—not too difficult, not too easy and tastes great! As with most King Cakes, the dough is baked in the form of a ring with a sweet glaze. The icing is sprinkled in royal colors of purple, green, and yellow sugar. Purple represents justice, green is faith, and gold is power.
If you’d like to bake your own, our traditional King Cake recipe is not difficult to make (despite the way it may appear), but it does involve several steps performed at approximately 2-hour intervals, so just plan to stay close to the kitchen throughout the process.
See our recipe for a beautiful Epiphany Tart, a Victorian jam tart.
For sponge: In a bowl, combine milk, water, and sugar. Sprinkle with yeast and stir to dissolve. Set aside for 5 minutes, or until foamy. Sprinkle with flour, then, using an electric or stand mixer, beat until blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside at room temperature for 2 hours, or until bubbly.
In a large bowl combine 1-½ cups flour, sugar, orange zest, and salt. Add the sponge, eggs, almond extract, brandy, and butter pieces. Beat for 2 minutes, or until smooth. Add remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon or plastic spatula until soft dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl forms.
Turn out dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 3 minutes, or until soft and springy. If necessary to prevent sticking, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, but do not allow dough to become dry.
Grease a large bowl. Place dough in the bowl and turn to coat it on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Separate into 2 same-size balls. Return one ball to the bowl, and lightly cover it with plastic wrap. Pat and roll remaining dough into a rectangle (about 11 inches by 17 inches). Sprinkle with 1 cup candied fruit. Place the plastic baby or trinket on the dough amid the candies (if using). Starting with the side farthest from you, roll the dough toward you, capturing the candied fruit. Place on the lined baking sheet, forming a circle. Moisten fingers with water and pinch the ends together. To help cake retain its hole in the middle, grease the exterior of a small, ovenproof pan or cup (without a handle) and place it in the center. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 2 hours, or until doubled in size. Repeat with remaining ball of dough.
Preheat oven to 375°F about 15 minutes before baking. Paint each dough ring with beaten egg yolks. Bake for 40 minutes, or until browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Brush each cake ring with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Set aside and make glaze.
Glaze and Sugar Recipes
In a bowl, combine butter, vanilla, and confections’ sugar. Beat to blend, adding milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until smooth. For thinner glaze, add more milk; for thicker glaze, add more confectioners’ sugar.
For decorative sugar:
Put 1 tablespoon sugar in each of three separate bowls. Working one bowl at a time, add 1 drop yellow food coloring to one bowl; add 1 drop green food coloring to one bowl; add 1 drop each red and blue food coloring to the remaining bowl. Using separate spoons, stir the sugar and food coloring until evenly mixed.
Spread glaze on each cake ring. Sprinkle with yellow, green, and purple sugar separately, making several stripes of each color on the cakes.