King Cake recipes are served and celebrated throughout the Mardi Gras season, traditionally from Twelfth Night (December 6) through Lent, which, in the Christian tradition, begins on Ash Wednesday. Numerous cake and bread batters baked in the form of a ring, glazed, and sprinkled with purple, green, and yellow sugar can serve as King Cakes. Ideally, a tiny plastic baby, a bean, or other small trinket is baked inside the cake and the person who finds the trinket in his/her slice provides the next cake. The colored sugar gives the cake a royal look; yellow represents power; green, faith; and purple, justice.
This sweet bread is not difficult to make, but it involves several steps performed at approximately 2-hour intervals, so plan to stay close to the kitchen throughout the process.
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.
Ina 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.