Project Wonderful

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mardi Gras King Cake

Mardi Gras is almost here, so I decided to try my hand at making a traditional King Cake.

The "king cake" takes its name from the biblical three kings. In Catholic liturgical tradition, the Solemnity of Epiphany - commemorated on January 6 - celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5) is popularly known as Twelfth Night (the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from Christmas Eve until this night). The season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Twelfth Night and Epiphany Day), up until Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday;" the day before the start of Lent. Some organizations or groups of friends may have "king cake parties" every week through the Carnival season. In Portugal and France, whoever gets the King cake trinket is expected to buy the next cake for these get-togethers.   -Wikipedia 

I'm still new to baking, so I researched several variations and decided to do a more traditional one for my first attempt. This recipe comes courtesy of and makes two king cakes, filled with a delicious blend of pecans, brown sugar and raisins.

Fair warning: this is a time-consuming process, as you have to let the dough rise for at least two hours, then punch it down, make the roll and let it rise again for about 45 minutes before you bake it for a half hour. So be sure to allocate enough time for this!

The recipe calls for scalding the milk before adding it to the dough. A lot of people have asked why this is necessary. The answer: science!

Scalding the milk first serves a couple of purposes:

  1. While all modern milk is pasteurized before being sold, the pasteurization process may not always eliminate all of the bacteria and wild yeasts that can reside in it, and these wild yeasts can alter the texture and flavor of the finished bread. 
  2. One of the enzymes in the whey protein of milk weakens the gluten in flour and prevents the bread from rising as high as it should. Scalding kills this enzyme.
  3. Scalded milk also helps to dissolve other ingredients added, like butter and speeds up the process of infusing flavor components like vanilla beans.

To scald the milk, use a heavy bottomed pan to prevent scorching and heat the milk over medium heat. Stir the milk frequently, as this will prevent a protein film from forming over the surface. Once bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan and the milk gives off steam, take it off the heat to cool. That's it.

So roll up your sleeves and let's get to work.


1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water (110º)
1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup melted butter

1 cup confectioners' sugar
1-2 Tbs water

Scald the milk, remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup of butter. Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. 

While the milk is cooling, It's time to resuscitate the yeast. Dissolve two yeast packets in warm water (about 110 degrees, no hotter) with 1 tablespoon of the white sugar in a large bowl. Stir gently and let stand until the yeast starts to bubble and look creamy after about 10 minutes. (I personally feel like Doctor Frankenstein every time I wake up yeast. The house is always filled with me shouting "It's alive! It's ALIVE!!" 

When yeast is ready, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the eggs and stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. 

Use a hand mixer and beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. Eventually your mixer will become inefficient so switch to a heavy duty spoon and hand mix the rest of the way. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball. 

If you've never kneaded dough for 10 minutes before, this is a great arm workout.
Spray some cooking spray into a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat it with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place.

I set my oven to warm, placed the bowl in the oven and then turned the oven off. If you leave the oven light on, this should provide just enough of a warm environment for the yeast to do their thing of eating the sugar and releasing the carbon dioxide to make the bread rise. 

That's right: bread is nothing more than powdered wheat and fungus farts. True story. 

After about two hours, the dough will have doubled in size. When ready, punch down and divide dough in half.
Preheat oven to 375º. 

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

To Make the filling:
Combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped pecans, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup raisins. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cinnamon mixture and mix until its a crumbly bowl of awesome.
Roll the dough halves out into large rectangles (approximately 10x16 inches). Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough and starting from the wide side, roll up each half. 

Bring the ends of each roll together and form 2 oval shaped rings. Pinch the dough to seal it up. Place each ring on the cookie sheets. 

With scissors, make cuts 1/3 of the way through the rings at about 1 inch intervals. 
Let rise in a warm spot until the rings double in size again, about 45 minutes.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, rotating the cakes half-way through the baking process.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool (but leave the parchment paper intact for now.) 

When cool enough to touch, push the toy baby into the bottom of the cake. If you are worried about someone chocking on the toy, you can either warn them or just place the baby on top, but that doesn't seem as much fun. 
 Frost while warm with the confectioners' sugar blended with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water.

Then sprinkle with the colored sugar. Tradition says it should be purple, gold and green, but be creative if you want. 

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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