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No Mardi Gras Celebration Is Complete Without King Cake

Make this traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras treat in your own kitchen, no matter where you live.
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Published Jan. 19, 2024.

New Orleans is a city of people with passionate opinions, especially concerning food. 

The easiest way to start an argument among New Orleanians is to pronounce as fact your opinion on, say, the best way to boil crawfish or how dark to take your roux for a certain dish—you’ll barely need to pause before your sparring partner interjects to inform you that you are wrong and how the way their grandma prepared it is actually correct. 

King cake, the reigning dessert of Mardi Gras, is no exception. 

This celebratory circle of dough has achieved near mythic status in Louisiana, and where to get the best one is the subject of intense debate. I’m here to pronounce my own strong opinion—the very best king cake is the one you make yourself. 

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Many folks will tell you the best king cake was from McKenzie’s, a local bakery chain that, in the New Orleans’ colloquialism, “ain’t dere no more.” Though now shuttered, the bakery also famously originated the tradition of including a baby figurine, meant to represent the infant Jesus, in the king cake. 

These babies were once made of porcelain and are now typically plastic, though other charms are deployed as well—in the past, folks might use an almond or a dried bean. The guest who receives the baby is responsible for bringing the king cake to the next gathering. In your average Louisiana workplace, this means you’ll likely have the chance to enjoy king cake every single workday through the Mardi Gras season. 

A Sweet, Historic Reign

A round baked good containing a symbolic trinket, eaten in celebration of the holiday of Epiphany, is found across the Catholic diaspora in different forms. Epiphany marks the three kings’ visit to baby Jesus, and it’s generally agreed that New Orleans inherited the king cake from France and Spain. 

In francophone cultures, you might enjoy a galette des rois, a very French confection of puff pastry and almond frangipane, while in Spain the rosca de reyes consists of a round of brioche topped with dried fruit. In New Orleans, this has morphed into the circle of sweet bread, often flavored with cinnamon and topped with sugar colored purple, green, and gold. Tradition dictates that the colors represent justice, faith, and power (though that may be another New Orleans legend in its own right). 

In Louisiana, king cake is eaten between January 6, the feast of Epiphany, and Mardi Gras. In recent years, local bakers have competed to develop increasingly innovative king cake flavors, and you’ll find them now filled with anything from pecan praline to chocolate to strawberry. There are even savory versions such as those filled with boudin. 

When I first started making king cakes several years ago, I approached the process with a bit of a critical eye—I’m not a New Orleans native, and I felt like a lot of the cakes I tried were a bit, well, lackluster. 

In its simplest form, king cake is a soft bread filled with a ribbon of cinnamon sugar and topped with a sweet glaze and brightly colored sanding sugar representing the colors of Mardi Gras. I wanted my own king cake to feature an elegant ring of dough and have a strong pop of cinnamon flavor with a more moderate overall sweetness. The version published here is traditional with a few modern tweaks to make it easier to make and enjoy. 

Recipe

King Cake

Make this traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras treat in your own kitchen, no matter where you live.
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Begin with a simplified enriched bread dough (enriched simply means the addition of sugar or fat—here, melted butter). Chill the dough, divide it in two, and fill each half with a lush cinnamon spread before braiding the two pieces together—working with cold dough makes this assembly a breeze. 

The filling includes gingersnap crumbs, which help lock the buttery spiced filling into place so that each slice features a distinct swirl. 

This is a great opportunity to use the very best cinnamon you have; an excellent, fresh cinnamon will really shine in this recipe. 

Next, place the braided ring of dough in a round cake pan to rise and bake. King cakes are often baked free-form on a sheet tray rather than baked in a pan. I prefer the latter—having the support of the sides of a round cake pan allows you to use a more tender dough and still get a great rise and shape without the filling leaking out and scorching the bottom. 

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Last, use sour cream in the glaze to cut the sweetness and add a bit of tang. 

These breaks from king-cake convention might stir up a debate here in New Orleans, but I think you’ll find the end result well worth it. If you include a charm with your king cake, don’t forget to remind your guests to expect it—especially so that they can plan to bring the king cake to the next party. 

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