If you’ve ever wanted to make a gorgeous Mardi Gras King Cake, this is your year! This traditional Mardi Gras bread is a fun to make treat that everyone will love!
New Orleans King Cake
The tradition of the King Cake came to New Orleans with the French settlers. In France, it is traditional to serve a “Galette des Rois” or “Gateau Des Rois” (King Cake) on January 6, the Epiphany (like the Spanish Three Kings Bread).
The French Galette Des Rois takes two forms depending on which region you are in, and it is in the south France version (Gateau Des Rois) that we see the grandfather of what would become the New Orleans traditional king cake.
This “cake” is actually a bread, made up of a rich, brioche-like dough that is flavored with citrus and shaped into a crown.
King Cake and Mardi Gras
In many parts of Europe (and places with heavy European influence) there is a festive season that starts on the Epiphany (the day when the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the Christ child’s crib is celebrated). This season lasts until Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, when the Lenten season of fasting and penitence begins.
That’s over a month of partying!
This time, known as the Carnival season, is marked by king cake parties every weekend.
It was the French settlers who brought the tradition of Carnival and the King Cake to the New World, where it became a staple part of the New Orleans culture.
The Baby in the King Cake
You may have heard of the tradition to put a plastic baby figurine (or a pecan or bean) into the king cake.
The person who gets the baby is the king or queen of the party!
But, if you’re celebrating the whole Carnival season and you get the baby. Guess what? You are responsible for hosting the next king cake party!
Our Traditional King Cake Recipe
While there may seem like a lot of steps to making Mardi Gras king cake, it really is a pretty simple process.
First, you start with a basic, rich dough (with butter, sugar, and egg yolks). We season ours with lemon zest and nutmeg to give it just a little something extra.
This is a sticky dough at first (like the dough for our Polish baked donuts), so we recommend using a stand mixer to knead the dough.
After rising, the dough becomes smooth and supple, exactly what you want to work with when you’re going to be doing a lot of rolling.
Get that rolling pin ready!
It is important to roll the dough into a LONG rectangle. You’re looking for around 30 inches long and 6 inches wide. Rolling the dough extra long means that you can create a ring with a big hole in the middle.
This is key because this dough LOVES to rise. You’ll be surprised by how much your ring rises and then again by how much it springs in the oven. So, having a nice big hole in the middle of your ring is key to getting a king cake that is crown shaped, and not just one big round loaf.
If you want to see the steps in the process of making the king cake. Take a look at our video below.
King Cake Filling
There are MANY ways to fill your king cake. In fact, every bakery in New Orleans has their own signature fillings that they’ve gotten creative with. But, even with the fun and creative fillings, you typically always find the two traditional fillings as well: sweetened cream cheese and cinnamon.
For our king cake recipe, we decided to combine these two traditional fillings for a lightly sweetened, cinnamon cream cheese.
We love the way the cinnamon adds a nice swirl of color to the bread, and the cream cheese gives a nice flavor too!
What do the Mardi Gras Colors Mean?
Once you’ve baked your king cake, it’s time to decorate it!
Mardi Gras king cakes are traditionally decorated with colored sugar in the three Mardi Gras colors: green, gold, and purple.
Green symbolizes faith. Gold is for power/wealth. And, purple is for justice.
How to Make Your Own Colored Sugar
If you can’t find green, gold, and purple colored sugar. Don’t worry.
Simply put 1/4 cup of granulated sugar in a zip-lock baggie. Add a couple drops of food coloring. Then seal the bag, pressing out as much air as you can.
Work the sugar and the dye inside the bag together using your fingers. With the sugar and dye inside the bag, your hands don’t get stained at all!
Seriously, this is one of our favorite kitchen tricks!
How to Decorate your King Cake
The sugar is held onto the king cake by an icing glaze. It is important that your glaze is just thin enough to spread easily over the hot bread, but not so thin that it is runny, or else it will all run off.
This part needs to be done quickly. The icing dries fast, and it needs to be wet and sticky for the sugar to stick properly.
If you have a kitchen helper, this is the time to employ their help.
If not, just get everything set and ready to go, and start icing!
If you’ve never had a slice of Mardi Gras King Cake, you are in for a real treat. The soft, eggy dough and the cinnamon filling are a match made in heaven. And, the sugar glaze doesn’t hurt anything either!
Let the good times roll!
Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake
For the Dough
For the Filling
- 8 oz cream cheese, softened
- ½ c brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp cinnamon
For the Icing
- 2 c powdered sugar
- 2 Tbsp milk
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- Purple green, and gold sugar ( for decorating)*
- 1 plastic king cake baby or a pecan half (optional)
For the Dough
- Pour the water and milk into a bowl. Add 2 tsp of the sugar and mix to dissolve. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the liquid, and let it rest for 5 minutes, until the yeast is foamy.
- While the yeast is hydrating, cream the butter and remaining sugar in your stand mixer. Add the egg yolks, lemon zest, and nutmeg, and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy, 1-2 min.
- In a small bowl, mix together 3 cups of flour and the salt.
- Alternating, add some of the yeast mixture and some of the flour to the butter mixture, mixing well after each addition. Continue until both have been incorporated.
- Switch your mixer to dough hooks and continue kneading the dough on medium speed. Add the remaining flour slowly, kneading to incorporate each addition, until a loose, sticky dough starts to form.
- Turn the mixer to medium high speed and knead for 5 minutes, until the dough comes together in a smooth, glossy ball and starts to climb the sides of the dough hook.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and place it into a clean, well-greased bowl. Turn the dough to coat it with grease. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and set it aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, 1-1 ½ hours.
For the Filling
- While the dough rises, make the filling. In a large mixing bowl, combine the filling ingredients. Beat with an electric hand mixer on low speed. Cover and set aside.
Putting It All Together
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and grease the parchment.
- Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface.
- Roll the dough into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
- Spread the filling lengthwise over the dough, leaving a 1 inch border at the top.
- Starting at the bottom edge, roll the dough over the filling to create a long snake. When you reach the top of the dough, pinch the edge to seal it well.
- Place the snake onto the prepared baking pan, shaping it into a ring, with the seam-side down.
- Pinch the two ends together to create one, continuous circle.
- Cover the ring with plastic wrap or your damp tea towel and place it in a warm, draft-free place to rise again until doubled, 30-45 minutes.
Baking the King Cake
- Near the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 350F.
- Lightly brush the risen ring with milk.
- Bake the king cake until it is golden and firm when lightly pressed, 40-45 minutes. (Check the bread after about 30 minutes to see if it is browning too quickly. If it is, lightly tent it with aluminum foil.)
Topping the King Cake
- While the king cake is baking, make the icing. Combine 2 cups of powdered sugar, 2 Tbsp milk, and 1 Tbsp lemon juice in a medium bowl. Stir to blend well, adding more milk if the icing looks too stiff. (You want the icing to be spreadable, but not runny.)
- When the king cake is done, remove it from the oven and gently spread the icing evenly over the top of the ring, letting it ooze down the sides.
- Immediately sprinkle the colored sugar over the icing.
- Let the cake cool for 30 minutes on the baking sheet before transferring it to a wire rack to cool completely.
Serving and Storing King Cake
- The king cake is best served the same day it is made, but it can be stored, loosely covered, to be served within 48 hours.
- If using, insert the king cake baby or pecan half into the king cake from the bottom of the ring before cutting and serving.
- Store any leftover king cake in an airtight container on the counter for 2-3 days.
After your desired color is reached, leave the bag open for 12-24 hours for the sugar to dry. Once the sugar is dry, you can break up any clumps, so the sugar will sprinkle easily.
Store the granulated sugar sealed in the zip-lock bag until you are ready to use it.
Looking for more New Orleans inspired Recipes for Mardi Gras? Look no further! We have a great collection of recipes from bloggers we love below!
- Andouille and Crawfish Pimento Cheese Fries by Soulfully Made
- Hot Louisiana Shrimp Dip by Sprinkles and Sprouts
- Mardi Gras Muffaletta Dip by For the Love of Food
- Piquant Shrimp Balls by Food Lust People Love
- Trinidadian doubles by Caroline’s Cooking
- Andouille and Chicken Gumbo by Delaware Girl Eats
- Bananas Foster French Toast by A Mind “Full” Mom
- Bananas Foster Baked Oatmeal by Cooking With Carlee
- Blackened Shrimp Pasta by Seduction in the Kitchen
- Cajun Courtbouillon by Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Cajun Pasta Carnivale by Palatable Pastime
- Chicken and Shrimp Gumbo by The Freshman Cook
- Creamy Cajun Chicken Pasta by Wholistic Woman
- Creole Beef and Rice Bowls by Renee’s Kitchen Adventures
- Easy Shrimp and Grits Recipe by Life Tastes Good
- Gluten Free Gumbo by Cricket’s Confections
- Gumbo Z’herbes by Monica’s Table
- Hawaiian Jambalaya by Shockingly Delicious
- Overnight Muffuletta Sandwich by A Kitchen Hoor’s Adventures
- Slow Cooker Jambalaya by The Crumby Cupcake
- Spicy Jambalaya Flatbread by My Life Cookbook
- Tenderloin Grillades with Cheesy Grits by A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Vegetarian Muffaletta Sandwich by Hardly A Goddess
- Creole Potato Salad by Cosmopolitan Cornbread
- Easy Buttermilk Cornbread by The Wimpy Vegetarian
- Muffaletta Wedge Salad by Shaken Together
- New Orleans Brandy Milk Punch by Tara’s Multicultural Table
- Not So Dirty Rice by Simple and Savory
- Red Beans and Rice by Cindy’s Recipes and Writings
- Bananas Foster by That Skinny Chick Can Bake
- Basic Bread Pudding by What Smells So Good?
- Bourbon Vanilla Cherries Jubilee by Pies and Plots
- Mardi Gras Cheese Ball by Hezzi-D’s Books and Cooks
- Easy Mini King Cake Bites by Family Around The Table
- New Orleans Mardi Gras Beignets by Big Bear’s Wife
- Pecan Praline Cookies by Sunday Supper Movement
- Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake by Curious Cuisiniere
- White Chocolate-Raspberry Bread Pudding by Gourmet Everyday