What Is King Cake? Here’s How to Make This Mardi Gras Treat
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Here's the story behind this lucky dessert—and a guide to how to make king cake from scratch.
When you think of Mardi Gras, you probably think of New Orleans parades, Bourbon Street and people tossing strands of colorful beads into the air. But there are traditional Mardi Gras recipes, too—including king cake. Here’s what king cake is, why people hide a toy baby in it and how to make it yourself for a festive treat.
What is King Cake?
King cake—also known as three kings cake or galette des rois, in French—is a sweet pastry that’s part of Mardi Gras celebrations across the country. It’s coated in thick frosting and decorated with colorful sugar sprinkles.
The king cake tradition originated centuries ago in areas such as France and Spain, where wreath-shaped cakes were eaten on King’s Day (January 6) to honor the three kings in the nativity story. When European immigrants made their way to America, they brought along the recipe—though the cakes back then were much simpler than the elaborate green, yellow and purple creations you’ll find in New Orleans’ French Quarter today.
What Flavor is King Cake?
Our Traditional New Orleans King Cake recipe is flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon zest. However, there are different variations you can try, like a King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling or this Mardi Gras King Cake, which has an almond filling.
Why Is There a Baby in the King Cake?
Said to symbolize baby Jesus, the toy baby represents good luck in the coming year. Traditionally, there’s only one hidden inside the cake—whoever finds it is dubbed king or queen for the evening. Along with bragging rights, king-cake royalty means you’re in charge of buying or making the cake for the next year’s Fat Tuesday celebration.
The tradition of hiding objects in the cake dates back to the 19th century, when king cake had become a staple dessert at Mardi Gras celebrations, including the annual balls in New Orleans. Bakers began to hide objects inside the cake. It was usually a fava bean, but sometimes a pecan or even a gold ring! Whoever found the bean would be named the king or queen of the ball.
Fast forward to the 1940s, when a traveling salesman happened to have a surplus of porcelain babies. While in New Orleans, he approached McKenzie’s Bakery—the most successful commercial bakery in the city at the time—and suggested hiding the toy babies in king cake. The idea stuck, although they eventually switched to plastic toy babies.
How to Make King Cake
Here’s how to make your own king cake, based on our Traditional New Orleans King Cake recipe.
- 2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water (110°F to 115°)
- 3/4 cup sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup warm 2% milk (110° to 115°)
- 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 1-1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3-1/4 to 3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 large egg, beaten
For the glaze:
- 1-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 to 3 tablespoons water
- Green, purple and yellow sugars
Tools You’ll Need
- Sugar sprinkles: Green, purple and yellow sugar sprinkles will add a festive topping to your king cake. This set of Wilton sprinkles includes all of the colors you’ll need.
- Toy baby: If you’re following tradition, you’ll need a little toy baby to hide in your king cake. One pack of these metallic king cake babies comes with a dozen—enough to last you for the next 12 years!
- Baking sheet: A king cake doesn’t require any special cake pan—all you need is a baking sheet, like the nonstick baking sheets that are part of the Taste of Home cookware and bakeware collection.
Step 1: Mix the dough
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, egg yolks, salt, lemon zest, nutmeg and 2 cups of flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft, sticky dough.
Editor’s tip: Before you get started, test your yeast to make sure it’s active enough to leaven your king cake.
Step 2: Let it rise
On a floured surface, knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic, about 6 to 8 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning it once to grease the top. Cover it and let it rise in a warm place until it doubles, about 1 hour. Punch the dough down.
Step 3: Form the cake
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 16×10-inch rectangle. Combine the cinnamon and remaining sugar and sprinkle the mixture over the dough to within 1/2 inch of the edges. Roll up the dough jelly-roll style, starting with a long side, and pinch the dough to seal the seam. Place the dough seam-side down on a greased baking sheet and pinch the ends together to form a ring. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Brush with egg.
Step 4: Bake
Bake your king cake at 375° for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack.
Step 5: Hide the baby (optional)
If you want to hide a toy baby—or another object, like a trinket, coin or dried bean—wait until after the cake is baked and cooled. Otherwise, the object could melt and ooze into your cake.
Insert the baby from the bottom of the cake so that people won’t be able to see where it is.
Step 6: Glaze and decorate
For the glaze, combine the confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice and enough water to achieve your desired consistency. Spread the glaze over the cake and sprinkle with colored sugars.