Most roads in New Orleans these days lead to King Cake.
We’re in that precious month between King’s Day (January 6th) and Fat Tuesday where we eat as much and as many King Cakes as we can. We King Cake our doughnuts (see District Doughnuts), we buy mini cakes from the grocery store, send cakes to our friends in other states… it’s an extravaganza and a tradition. Who would be be to snub tradition.
A few years ago, during what was my first full Mardi Gras in this fine city, I made a more traditional King Cake. This year I thought I’d play with the cinnamon swirled brioche dough, making a wreath of rolls frosted in cream cheese and sprinkled in traditional colors.
Near or far, I hope this inspires you to bring a little Mardi Gras into your Winter. Feel it. Feel the spirit!
Here are the essentials:
Plastic Baby: you’ll hide this inside the cake and whomever finds it in their slice has to make or buy the next King Cake… and gets bragging rights, and good luck, and another slice of cake.
Fancy Sprinkles King Cake edition. Not essential but really just the most fun!
Maybe you want the easy way out and you’d like a King Cake shipped to your door straight from New Orleans. I get it I get it. There’s a few ways to do that! Joe Gambino’s Bakery, Haydel’s Bakery, and Manny Randazzo all deliver cakes across the country. Turns out there are a lot of ways to cake.
Here’s what you’ll need for the King Cake for the Cinnamon Rolls, for all the goodness:
• The dough is a simple yeasted dough: flour + yeast + salt + good pinch of sugar. But! We want as tender and luscious a dough as we can get. That means we’re also adding egg yolks, softened butter, and whole milk.
• Brown sugar, more butter (wink wink nudge nudge), and loads of cinnamon for the filling.
• Cream cheese, more butter (ok sorry), powdered sugar, and milk for the frosting.
• Yellow, purple, and green sugar sprinkles. Mardi Gras beads. And a baby… gotta have a baby.
Milk is warmed to just steaming. You don’t want it to be hot hot hot or it will kill the yeast. Just so that it feels warm to the touch. This happens quickly in a saucepan because it’s a small amount of milk.
To the milk we’ll add yeast and a pinch of salt.
The yeast, when left to rest, will begin to fluff and bubble a bit. That’s how you know you’re in business.
Into a mixing bowl we have our flour, the milky yeast mixture, egg and egg yolks, softened butter, salt, and brown sugar.
One of the best things about this recipe is that it aaalll goes in the same bowl to mix. Really, very little fuss.
After some quality time (about 6 minutes or so) the dough is a soft and glossy dough ball.
The dough is left to rest in a greased bowl, covered lightly with plastic wrap and left in a warm place until fluffed and doubled… about 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.
While the dough rises… gosh it looks gorgeous… we’ll mix together the filling.
We’ll mix softened butter with lots of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a few tablespoons of flour (to thicken the paste).
The mixture will transform into a thick and spreadable paste.
This dough! It rivals these doughnuts for my favorite dough ever.
Rolled to just slightly thicker than 1/4-inch. A large round circle.
Spread with the prepared filling. Good and just so.
Sprinkled generously with chopped pecans.
You could use walnuts if you prefer… or no nuts should that be what you like. Pecans are very Southern and I love the slight softness they take on in these rolls.
Rolled, as we do.
Instead of simply slicing the rolls into round spirals, we’ll swipe the ends of the dough around, connecting the ends and making a circle of the roll. I layered one end into the other to connect the two.
We’ll slice about 2-inch rolls… slicing into the wreath about 3/4 on the way towards the center but keeping the rolls connected. Slice and twist each wedge around to expose the swirls.
On a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet.
These two things are important. Parchment paper is nonstick and easier to work with than foil. The rimmed baking sheet we’ll need because there is a good bit of butter and sugar that might ooze out of the rolls and we don’t want that on the bottom of our oven.
Some bakers place a large ramekin in the center of the wreath to keep the perfectly round shape. Maybe you’re into that. Maybe you’re more rustic like I am.
Baked to golden brown and bubbling.
Full disclosure: I transferred the baked wreath to a new piece of parchment paper because some of the filling baked out and onto the pan. Nothing is wrong with this, it’s still perfectly delicious… I just wanted a cleaner situation for the photograph.
The rolls are cooled slightly and then it’s time to frost!
Very soft cream cheese meets very soft butter, powered sugar, vanilla, and a splash of milk until the mixture is spreadable.
This just got infinitely more irresistible.
Now… King Cake needs three things: purple, green, and yellow.
Purple for justice. Green for faith. Gold for power.
You know… super casual cake life.
Slice apart. Pull apart. Make sure you hide the plastic baby on one of the rolls for someone to find.
Happy Carnival! xxo
Photos with Jon Melendez
- 1/2 cup whole milk, heated to lukewarm
- 2 1/4 tablespoons (1 pack) active dry yeast
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 cup lightly packed light sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup finely chopped pecans
- 4 ounces (half a block) cream cheese, softened
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- pinch of salt
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- splash of pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons whole milk, plus more as necessary
- To make the dough, first stir together warm milk, yeast, and a pinch of the brown sugar. Allow to rest for 5 minutes to foam and bubble a bit. Place all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low until the dough begins to come together. You may want to speed up the process by first mixing all of the ingredients together by hand with a spatula before putting the bowl on the stand mixer. This will help the dough hook with its work. The dough will come together into a soft, though not too sticky dough ball after several minutes of hand mixing and stand mixer mixing, about 6 minutes.
- Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and lightly dust the top of the dough with flour. The flour will help you see that the dough is rising. Let it rise until double in size, about 2 hours.
- To make the filling, combine the butter, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and flour in a small bowl until a thick paste is created. Set aside.
- On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into about a 12 x 18 inch rectangle. If your rectangle is more of a circle, that's ok too.
- Spread the cinnamon filling evenly over the dough. Sprinkle with nuts.
- Beginning with one long edge, roll the dough into a log. Holding the ends of the rolled dough, wrap the dough into a circle, and tuck one of the ends of the rolled dough into the other, sealing by squeezing it lightly.
- Place a piece of parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet.
- Carefully and quickly transfer the round dough to the center of the baking sheet. Use a large knife to slice into the dough round. Slice about 3/4 the way into the dough, around the circle about 2-inches apart. Carefully twist each attached roll onto its side, revealing the cinnamon swirl.
- Cover lightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.
- While the dough is rising, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Bake the wreath for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. The filling may cook out a bit but that's ok. Remove the cake from the oven and cool slightly.
- To make the filling, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together cream cheese, and softened butter. Add the salt, powdered sugar, vanilla extract and a splash of milk. Beat until smooth and spreadable.
- Spread on slightly warm cake and enjoy warm the day it is made!