This moist, tender, buttery yeast bread, lightly sweetened then drizzled with vanilla glaze, sprinkled with colored sugars, and sometimes crowned with candied cherries, is a traditional New Orleans favorite. Served beginning on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (January 6), it's enjoyed right on through Mardi Gras, a sweet symbol of this festive season. The sugars decorating the top of the cake mirror the color scheme of many a Mardi Gras parade float: gold (yellow) for power, green for faith, and purple for justice.
Originally King Cake was a rather plain bread whose flavor was almost all in its sweet toppings. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, customers began to demand something a bit more special. These days, most King Cakes are made with rich, brioche-like dough, and filled, most often with cream-cheese filling. While we give that version here, feel free to dream up your own filling: other New Orleans favorites include various kinds of fruit, chocolate, and praline.
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) butter, melted
3/4 cup (6 ounces) lukewarm milk
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
3 1/2 cups (14 3/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) Baker's Special Dry Milk or nonfat dried milk powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil or 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
3 tablespoons (7/8 ounce) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla or 1/8 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia or lemon oil
2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners' sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons plus 1 to 2 teaspoons milk, enough to make a thick but pourable glaze
Yellow, purple, and green fine sparkling sugars
Candied red cherries (optional)
Lightly grease a 10-inch, 4-cup capacity bakeable stoneware ring mold, or
a baking sheet.
To prepare the dough: Using a stand mixer, electric hand mixer, or bread
machine, mix and knead all of the dough ingredients together to form a smooth,
very silky dough. You may try kneading this dough with your hands, if desired;
but be advised it's very sticky and soft. Allow the dough to rise, covered,
for 1 hour. It'll become puffy, though it probably won't double in size.
Transfer the soft dough to a lightly greased work surface. Pat and stretch
it into a 24- x 6-inch rectangle. This won't be hard at all; it's very
stretchy. Let the dough rest while you prepare the filling.
To prepare the filling: Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour
till smooth, scraping the bowl once. Add the egg and flavor, again beating until
Dollop the filling down the center of the long strip of dough. Then fold
each edge up and over the filling till they meet at the top; roll and pinch
the edges together, to seal the filling inside as much as possible. Don't
worry about making the seal look perfect; it'll eventually be hidden by
the icing and sugar.
Place the log of dough into the prepared ring mold, seam down or to the
side (just not on top), or onto the baking sheet. The dough will be very extensible,
i.e., it'll stretch as you handle it. So pick it up and position it in the
pan quickly and gently. Pinch the ends together. Cover and let rise for about
an hour, until it's puffy.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F while the dough rises.
Whisk the reserved egg white with 1 tablespoon water, and brush it over
the risen loaf.
Bake the cake for 20 minutes, then tent it lightly with aluminum foil.
Bake it for an additional 30 minutes, until it's a rich golden brown.
Remove the cake from the oven, and after 5 minutes gently loosen its edges
from the pan, if you've baked it in a ring mold.
After an additional 10 minutes, turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool
(or transfer it from the baking sheet to a rack to cool).
To make the icing: Beat together all of the icing ingredients, dribbling
in the final 2 teaspoons milk till the icing is thick yet pourable.
Pour the icing over the completely cooled cake.
While it's still sticky, sprinkle with alternating bands of yellow,
purple, and green sugars.