THE WASHINGTON POST – I rarely made king cakes when I was growing up in New Orleans. During Carnival, bakers and pastry chefs in the city turn out thousands of the confections in every shape, size and flavour. Baking my own seemed redundant.
New Orleanians have, as a friend once said, fetishised the Carnival confection. It has become an obsession, with photos flooding social media channels and king cake parties celebrated almost daily in homes, offices and schools. The frenzy is warranted.
The colourful treats are traditionally enjoyed only during Carnival season, which begins each year on January 6. This year, happily ensconced in Washington, where king cake mania is considerably less frenzied, I decided to try my hand at baking one again.
When I mentioned it to a colleague at The Washington Post, she said that she liked the New Orleans-style cakes because “they are like big cinnamon rolls”. I started to roll my eyes but checked myself. If your experience with king cakes is through mail-order, that is probably all you’ve tasted. Cinnamon roll-style king cakes are so common now, they are considered traditional.
Crescent City king cake bakers said New Orleans-area grocery stores began selling and shipping the cinnamon-flavoured king cakes in the 1980s, making them more popular and readily available.
These days, however, cinnamon seems tame. New Orleans king cakes come in an ever-expanding array of styles and flavours, stuffed and plain – too many to list. And, beyond New Orleans, the confections vary, by tradition, from city to city and country to country. For instance, the traditional French galette de rois, also popular in New Orleans, is made of puff pastry and almond paste. Everyone has a favourite. I prefer simpler cake.
Before the cinnamon explosion in New Orleans, the king cake was more bread-like. In The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook: Sesquicentennial Tradition Edition, which was published in 1987 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Times-Picayune newspaper, the recipe mentions flour, eggs, butter, yeast, salt and candies to decorate. No cinnamon.
I wanted one along those lines, one that would call to mind the cakes that I remembered as a child – an old-school, brioche-style that gets much of its sweetness from the purple, green and gold sanding sugar sprinkles on top.
Still, even a traditionalist like me had to admit that the cake I remembered was a little dry. In stepped Chaya Conrad of Bywater Bakery in New Orleans. Her version of the cake was inspired by the same ones I treasured as a child – the ones made popular by the once-omnipresent McKenzie’s bakeries in New Orleans.
Conrad zeroed in on what those pastries were missing. The McKenzie’s cakes, she said, were too simple for modern customs and tastes.
“That’s such a plain king cake,” she said. “People expect a little bit more. I didn’t want to do cinnamon. I knew I wanted to do something that wasn’t its own filling, but something that had some extra love in it.”
So she added what she calls her “ooey, gooey, butter schmear” – a light filling that goes inside of the cake before baking. She augments that with a healthy shake of coloured sprinkles to give the cake more flavour, moisture and colour – or “a little jazz,” as she said. We’ve come up with a recipe that’s a bit less involved than the 48-hour prep Conrad uses for the cakes she sells – 10,000 in 2019. This one will take you about four hours to prepare. Luckily, more than half of that time is spent waiting for the dough to proof.
I also created my own version of Conrad’s schmear. It is optional, but I highly recommend it, because it adds a little sweetness and moisture to the otherwise bready cake. Also, royal icing is traditional, but I find it one-dimensional and too sweet, so I made a tangy buttermilk-yogurt glaze, which I now love and plan to use on other cakes as well.
Conrad has one more tip: If you’re going to make a king cake at home, give yourself time. “It’s not something that you can really rush,” she said. “It might be one of the reasons people don’t make it home, but it’s worth it.”
NEW ORLEANS KING CAKE
This traditional brioche-style king cake gets a modern twist from a buttery schmear that goes inside the cake before baking and a tangy glaze that goes on top. Sprinkle purple, green and gold sanding sugars on top to reflect the traditional Mardi Gras colours.
Storage Notes: The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.
Where to Buy: Purple, green and gold sanding sugars can be purchased online, or at craft or baking stores.
FOR THE DOUGH
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
Quarter cup granulated sugar, divided
Quarter cup water, heated to 115 degrees
Half cup whole milk
Two tablespoons light brown sugar
One teaspoon pure vanilla extract
One large egg, at room temperature
One large egg yolk, at room temperature
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Eight tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
FOR THE FILLING
Two tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and completely cooled to semisolid state
Half cup cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
Quarter teaspoon ground cinnamon
Finely grated zest from half large lemon
FOR THE DECORATION
Two cups confectioners’ sugar
Two tablespoons whole fat Greek yogurt
Finely grated zest from half large lemon
One teaspoon pure vanilla extract
One teaspoon whole-fat buttermilk or milk
Purple, green and gold sanding sugars
Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the yeast, half teaspoon granulated sugar and quarter cup water on medium speed until the yeast dissolves, about two minutes. If necessary, whisk by hand to reach down deep into the bowl.
Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Add the remaining granulated sugar, milk, light brown sugar and vanilla. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, lightly beat together the egg and egg yolk and add to the mixer bowl. Beat the mixture on low speed until thoroughly combined.
Turn the mixer off and switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the flour and salt. Mix on medium speed until the dough just comes together, about one to two minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Then, knead the dough for three to four minutes.
Add the butter and continue kneading until the dough is smooth and all the butter is incorporated. The dough should begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl after about six minutes.
If the dough does not pull away, use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl, forming the dough into a ball.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and place in a warm spot to rise until the dough has doubled in size, one-and-a-half to two hours.
Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the melted and cooled butter, softened cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest.
Whisk until thoroughly combined. The filling should be glossy and easily spreadable.
Shape the cake: Punch down the dough. Place it on a heavily floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a large circle, 16 to 18 inches in diametre and quarter-inch thick. Punch a hole in the centre of the circle with your finger.
Then widen the circle to about three inches. Using the back of a spoon or an offset spatula, spread the filling evenly around the ring of dough, halfway between the outer edge and inner circle, leaving about a one-inch border on each side.
Gradually fold the outside edge of the dough over the filling to meet the inner edge, continuing until the filling is covered, widening the centre hole as you go. The hole should be about eight inches wide when finished. Make sure the seams of the dough are well sealed by gently pinching the dough as needed. If necessary, dampen your fingers a bit and pinch to seal the dough. This prevents the filling from seeping out during baking.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and place it next to the dough circle. Lift one end of the dough circle and place it on the sheet pan; then lift the other end onto the pan.
Gently reform the dough into an oblong or rectangle on the pan, leaving at least an inch or two from the rim. Check to see that all seams remain sealed. Cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let it rest for one hour at room temperature until slightly puffed.
Half an hour before the cake finishes proofing, position the rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the towel from the cake. Bake until golden brown and dry to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes. Using the parchment paper, lift the cake from the sheet pan and move it to a wire rack. Let the cake cool completely before decorating, at least one hour.
While the cake is cooling, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, yogurt, lemon zest and vanilla. Add the buttermilk or milk gradually, whisking until the glaze is smooth and fluid enough to drizzle over the cake. Add more liquid, one teaspoon at a time, as needed to achieve the proper consistency.
Line a serving platter with wax or parchment paper. Transfer the cake to the platter.
Drizzle the glaze generously onto the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Sprinkle the cake with the sanding sugars, alternating strips of purple, green and gold. Allow the glaze to set for about 10 minutes. Gently lift the decorated cake and slide it off the paper on to a platter.
Slice and serve.
Calories: 360; Total Fat: 14g; Saturated Fat: 9g; Cholesterol: 60mg; Sodium: 85mg; Carbohydrates: 53g; Dietary Fibre: 1g; Sugars: 24g; Protein: 6g.