King Cake!

Mardi Gras is this Tuesday. This is a tough time of year to be away from New Orleans, and yet another polar vortex is certainly not helping the homesick bug. I truly hate to miss all the parades and parties, but one thing I refuse to miss out on is King Cake. If you’re unfamiliar, King Cake is a traditional treat that you can only eat during Carnival season (between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras). It can come in many forms, but the Louisiana version I grew up with is essentially a cinnamon roll cake topped with icing and purple, green, and gold sugar – the Mardi Gras colors – with a small plastic baby tucked inside. Growing up, every Friday during Carnival season someone would bring a King Cake to school and whoever got the piece with the baby would be responsible for bringing the next week’s cake. I have a vivid memory of my parents and I all getting the baby on the same day and joining the lineup at McKenzie’s Bakery on the way to school and work to pick up our three cakes. When I went to college and eventually moved on to Chicago, my parents would ship a King Cake to my dorm or office – always a popular day among my friends and coworkers. Last year I was living in New Orleans and wanted to ship a cake to my team in Toronto to share the love, but shipping a cake across international borders is absurdly expensive with a 50/50 chance of the thing making it through customs. This year I warned my parents off of their usual cake shipment and insisted on making my own – a feat I’ve never before attempted.

Y’all, I was nervous. I find yeasted recipes intimidating. I’m a pretty confident baker, but yeast can be very tricky what with particular temperatures and timing and rising – so many variables! After researching recipes I settled on Southern Living’s classic King Cake recipe. And…I failed. Royally. The dough never rose, and I baked it anyway thinking it might rise in the oven. It did not.

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Analyzing the wreckage pictured above, I noted several issues.
1. My sour cream and butter mixture may have been too hot for the yeast.
2. My kitchen may have been too cold for the yeast. See – I told you, yeast is high maintenance.
3. I used fast acting yeast in a recipe written for regular yeast. Who has time for two rises?
4. I clearly didn’t sufficiently seal the roll up, resulting in burnt filling on my pan. Ugh.

At this point, it’s 10pm on a work night and I’m out of flour. I had two choices: give up and go to bed, or run to the 24 hour grocery down the street and give it another shot. My sad little baggies of purple, green, and gold sugar stared up at me from the counter imploring me to try again, so off I ran.
This time, I switched to the NOLA.com King Cake guide. The recipe sounded simpler and was written for fast-acting yeast, and even though it required two rises a quick Google said that doing the first overnight in the fridge is fine. So, I mixed up my dough and went to sleep.

The next morning I got up early like a kid on Christmas and ran to the fridge to check my dough – it rose!

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I punched it down and rolled it out using a bottle of balsamic vinegar. Wine bottles also work well. Or a proper rolling pin if you’re fancy.

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Next comes a coating of melted butter – applied with a pastry brush or clean fingers – and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. Then roll it up!

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King cakes are oval shaped, so you’ve got to use some water to mash the ends together so it sticks. Then I threw a tea towel over it for the second rise and went to the gym. After a run and shower, it had puffed up again and was ready for baking. The uneven puffing is due to uneven rolling – oh well!
Half an hour later the thing was beautifully golden…

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…and piping hot! The next step involves icing and sugar – things that melt easily. I needed to cool this thing down fast if I was going to make it to work on time-ish, so I put it on my balcony while I finished getting ready. I suppose Toronto in February is good for something.

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Once ready, the cake was still warm-ish but it would have to do. I poured on the glaze, smeared it around, and went crazy with the sugar.

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King cakes are typically decorated in wedges, but precision is not my strong suit so I just tried to do some even-ish stripes. It took all of 10 seconds for me to give up on trying to be neat, and pretty soon my kitchen counter and floor were covered in brightly colored sugar, my hands were stained green, but somehow it actually looked pretty good! I stuck it back outside briefly to give the glaze and sugar a chance to set while I tried to figure out how to transport this thing to work. Luckily I’m a box hoarder and pulled out an old boot box that fit the cake and cutting board perfectly.
Arriving at work to unveil this beauty was a particularly proud moment. I mean look at this thing!

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After an appropriate amount of oohing and ahhing I announced that there was no baby in the cake…forgetting that the Canadians were unaware of the plastic baby tradition so I got some pretty horrified stares until I explained.
All the effort was well worth it once I took my first bite – tasted like home!

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