7 Traditional and Creative King Cakes for Mardi Gras
Though King Cake Season technically starts with Epiphany on January 6, it really picks up steam as we get closer to Mardi Gras. The tradition of king cakes began and survives in France, and was brought over to New Orleans in the mid-1800s, according to the History Channel. The traditional trio of purple, gold, and green colors symbolize the three kings of the Bible who visit Jesus on the day of Epiphany. The other tradition? A plastic baby, bean, or whole nut poked into the cake, representing baby Jesus. The person who gets the piece with the baby is either considered lucky or the one responsible for bringing the next king cake to the next gathering.
Whether you got the baby in the last cake or you’re looking for a delicious way to celebrate Mardi Gras, here are 7 traditional and creative king cakes to make at home.
1. The Traditional King Cake
This recipe from Southern Living makes 2 cakes, so if you’re having a smaller gathering, you can halve the ingredients. It’s the classic oval-shaped brioche with cinnamon filling, glazed and topped with festive tri-color sprinkles. The bread flour can be replaced with a high-protein all-purpose flour like King Arthur.
- One 16-ounce container sour cream
- ⅓ cup sugar
- ¼ cup butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Two ¼-ounce envelopes active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 6 to 6½ cups bread flour*
- ⅓ cup butter, softened
- ½ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 to 4 tablespoons milk
- Purple-, green-, and gold-tinted sparkling sugar sprinkles
Directions: Cook first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts. Set aside, and cool mixture to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stir together yeast, ½ cup warm water, and 1 tablespoon sugar in a 1-cup glass measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes.
Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, and 2 cups flour at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until smooth. Reduce speed to low, and gradually add enough remaining flour until a soft dough forms.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic. This could take up to 10 minutes. Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease top.
Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk.
Punch down dough, and divide in half. Roll each portion into a 22- by 12-inch rectangle. Spread ⅓ cup softened butter evenly on each rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border. Stir together ½ cup sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle evenly over butter on each rectangle.
Roll up each dough rectangle like a jelly roll, starting at one long side. Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with second dough roll.
Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden. Slightly cool cakes on pans on wire racks. While the cakes are cooling, make the glaze by stirring together the powdered sugar, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons of milk and stir to combine. Add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it has reached the desired consistency.
Drizzle the glaze evenly over warm cakes; sprinkle with colored sugars, alternating colors and forming bands. Let cool completely.
2. Cream Cheese Filled King Cake
What makes a rich dough better? Filling it with cream cheese and then rolling it up into an even more decadent king cake. There’s a reason the day before the Lenten season of restraint is called Fat Tuesday, and this traditional cake from Chocolate and Marrow certainly lives up to it! If you have food coloring and sugar, this recipe shows you how to make your own colored topping. If you’re not quite that ambitious, there’s no shame in store-bought!
- 1 (16 ounce) container of plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- ⅓ cup of sugar
- 5 tablespoons of butter
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 4½ teaspoons of active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 6 cups of bread flour, plus more if necessary
- ¾ cups of sugar
- One 8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 5 tablespoons of butter, softened
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1½ teaspoons of ground cinnamon
- 3 cups of powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons of butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 3 to 5 tablespoons of milk
- 1½ cups of granulated sugar, divided into 3 parts
- Purple, green, and yellow food coloring
Directions: If making your own colored sugar, start this first. Pour ½ cup of sugar onto 3 separate plates. Add a few drops of food coloring and mash with a fork until well mixed. Continue adding food coloring until you’ve reached your desired color. Let dry for an hour while you start your king cake.
Combine first 5 ingredients in a saucepan over low heat until butter melts, stirring frequently. Set aside and allow to cool while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a bowl. After it has activated, which could take about 10 minutes, pour it into a large mixing bowl along with the yogurt mixture, 2 eggs, and 2 cups of bread flour. Beat at medium speed until blended. Reduce the speed to low and add 4 more cups of bread flour, one at a time. The dough should be in a ball at this point. If the dough is still very sticky and not pulling away from the sides of the bowl, add a little more flour.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until smooth, about 5 to 10 minutes. Place in a butter-greased bowl, cover, and allow to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
While dough is rising, make the cream cheese filling. Beat ¾ cups of sugar, softened cream cheese, 1 egg, and vanilla until smooth. Set aside.
Once the dough ball has nearly doubled in size, punch it down and divide it into two equal parts. Roll each part into a rectangle 22 inches long and 12 inches wide. Take the remaining 5 tablespoons of softened butter and spread it over the dough rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border at the edges. Combine the remaining ½ cup of sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly all over the butter layer. Then take the cream cheese filling and spread a 2- to 3-inch thick line of it along the long edge of the dough rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border from all edges.
Starting on the long edge with the cream cheese, begin rolling, making sure to tuck the cream cheese in the beginning of the roll. Place on a greased baking sheet, seam side down. Pull together the ends of the roll to form an oval or a circle and push together tightly. Seal by pinching off with water. If it’s not sealed properly, the cream cheese will leak out during baking.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover dough circle and leave in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes.
Once it is done resting, remove the paper towel and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden on the outside. While cake is baking, prepare the glaze by mixing together first four ingredients. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of milk. Examine the consistency and add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired thickness in the glaze. Remove cake from the oven, drizzle all over with glaze and top with colored sugar.
3. Boudin Stuffed Savory King Cake
More about the savory flavors than the achingly sweet? How about a little of both? This boudin king cake is taking the south by storm. Boudin is a spicy sausage used often in Louisiana cooking, and it’s perfect in this spicy, salty, meaty, and just a little sweet treat for Mardi Gras. Robert Carriker of Boudin Link and King Caker started the craze and it has taken off. It’s topped with Steen’s cane syrup and then sprinkled not with colored sugars but with cracklin crumbs. For a recipe, we turned to And The Valley Shook. We can’t wait to dig in.
You can either buy your boudin, if you can find it, or make your own. Emeril has a recipe, because of course he does. If you’re a Northerner without easy access to cracklin crumbs, use bacon as some kind of substitute. Billy used a two-fill process here to get a singular cake; for Boudin Link’s double twisted king cake, make two single layer “tubes” and twist them together, then join the ends into a circle.
- 2 packages of active yeast
- 2½ cups of warm water
- ½ cup sweetened condensed milk
- ¼ cup of vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 9 to 11 cups of flour
- Melted butter for brushing
- 3 pounds of boudin
- 1 bag of cracklin crumbs
- Steen’s cane syrup
Directions: Dissolve yeast in warm water. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes or until active.
In large bowl mix yeasty water, sweetened condensed milk, vegetable oil, sugar, and salt. Add a cup of flour at a time until a good ball of dough forms.
Cover and let rest in a warm place for about an hour or until doubled in size.
When risen, take out of bowl and knead on floured surface. Roll out in a rectangle about 22-by-12 inches.
Remove the boudin from casings and place in a large bowl. Combine with a fork or your fingers and spread ⅔ of the mixture down the rectangle of dough, slightly off-center, leaving an inch border at either short end.
Fold the narrower long end over the boudin, then spread the remaining boudin against the dough. Brush the top of the fold with melted butter and/or some Steen’s cane syrup. Fold over the rest of the dough and seal tightly shut. Loop into a circle and pinch the ends together. Place on a large, greased cookie sheet. Brush the top of the king cake before baking at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, brush with more butter and return to the oven.
Once out of the oven, drizzle with Steen’s. Let sit for at least 10 minutes, and then sprinkle the cracklin crumbs on top and drizzle with more Steen’s.
4. Galette des Rois
Not all king cakes are so colorful. That style originates from southern France, whereas the northern French style is a bit more subdued. This galette des rois from David Lebovitz exemplifies that style: It’s buttery puff pastry filled with a layer of almond cream and decoratively scored on top. They can and do still contain little beans or cartoon characters or plastic babies for the king, and many of these style cakes come with a gold paper crown so whomever gets the fève can be king for a day.
David recommends looking for puff pastry that only list butter and no other fats in the ingredients. When working with puff pastry, do so quickly and keep as cold as possible, returning to the fridge if there’s any resting time.
- 1 cup almond flour
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Zest of ½ orange
- 3½ ounces unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons rum
- ⅛ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 pound puff pastry, divided in two pieces, chilled
- 1 whole almond or piece of candied fruit to be the fève
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon milk
Directions: To make the almond filling, in a medium bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the almond flour, sugar, salt, and orange zest. Cut in the butter until it’s completely incorporated. Stir in the eggs one at a time, along with the rum and almond extract. Cover and chill.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. On lightly floured surface, roll one piece of puff pastry into a circle about 9½-inches round. Using a pot lid, plate, or bottom of springform pan as a template, trim the dough into neat circle. Place the dough on the baking sheet.
Cover it with a sheet of parchment paper or plastic film, then roll the other piece of dough into a circle, trim it, and lay it on top. Chill the dough for thirty minutes.
Remove the dough and almond filling from the refrigerator. Slide the second circle of dough and parchment or plastic from pan so that there is only one circle of dough on the parchment lined baking sheet. Spread the almond filling over the center of the dough, leaving a 1-inch exposed border. Place an almond or piece of candied fruit to act as the fève somewhere in the almond filling.
Brush water generously around the exposed perimeter of the dough then place the other circle of dough on top of the galette and press down to seal the edges very well. You may want to chill the galette to make finishing and decorating easier.
To bake the galette, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Flute the sides of the dough and use a paring knife to create a design on top. Stir together the egg yolk with the milk and brush it evenly over the top. Use a paring knife to poke 5 holes in the top, to allow steam escape while baking.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until the galette is browned on top and up the sides. Remove from the oven and slide the galette off the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack. The galette will deflate as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature.
5. Gluten-Free King Cake
There are few gluten-free king cake recipes out there, but we couldn’t leave the gluten-free eaters out of the Mardi Gras festivities! Nicole of Gluten-Free on a Shoestring uses a ratio of 100 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour plus 25 grams whey protein isolate plus 15 grams modified tapioca starch to create a cup of gluten-free bread flour. As with the Chocolate and Marrow cream cheese cake from earlier, Nicole tells you how to make your own colored sugars, but you can use store bought.
- 3¼ cups gluten-free bread flour, plus more for sprinkling
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 8 ounces sour cream, at room temperature
- 1 egg at room temperature, beaten
- 3 to 4 ounces warm water
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
Glaze and Sugars
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at warm room temperature
- 2 tablespoons milk at room temperature, plus more if necessary
- ¾ cup superfine sugar
- Green, yellow, purple liquid food colorings
Directions: Mix flour, cream of tartar, instant yeast, and sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the salt and whisk to combine well. Add the butter, sour cream, egg, and 3 ounces water, and mix on low speed with the dough hook until combined. Raise the mixer speed to medium and knead for about 5 minutes. If the dough is too dry, add the remaining ounce of water. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl or proofing bucket large enough for the dough to rise to double its size, spray the top of the dough with cooking oil spray, and cover with an oiled piece of plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days.
Preparing the dough for shaping. On baking day, turn out the chilled dough onto a lightly floured surface and, using a very light touch, sprinkle the dough with more flour and knead. You may need a bench scraper, because you do not want to add too much flour. Repeat scraping and folding until the dough has become smoother.
Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with unbleached parchment paper and set it aside. On a lightly greased piece of parchment paper, using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle that is about 18-by-14 inches. In a small bowl, place all of the filling ingredients and mix to combine well. With a large, dull knife or offset spatula, spread the filling evenly over the entire surface of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border clean all around the perimeter. Roll the dough tightly into a cylinder and pinch the seam and the ends closed securely. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, seam side down, join the ends together and pinch them closed securely. Sprinkle the top and sides of the dough generously with bread flour to provide the dough a cloak to rise into, cover with greased plastic wrap and set in a warm, draft-free location to rise for about 40 minutes, or until it reaches about 150% of its original size. As the dough is nearing the end of its rise, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the dough has finished rising, remove the plastic wrap and place the pan in the center of the preheated oven. Bake until lightly golden brown all over, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes on the pan before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
While the bread is cooling, make the glaze and colored sugars. To make the glaze, mix the confectioners’ sugar, butter, and 1 tablespoon milk into a thick paste. Add the remaining tablespoon milk one teaspoon at a time, mixing well, until you have a glaze that is smooth and thickly pourable. To make the colored sugars, divide the superfine sugar into 3 separate small bowls. Add the food coloring and mix.
Pour the glaze over the top of the bread, allowing it to drizzle, and immediately decorate with the 3 different colored sugars in alternating bands.
6. Domenica King Cake
This king cake from Domenica Restaurant in New Orleans is not traditional, but it surely represents all of the decadence of Mardi Gras. Chef Lisa White set out to create a spin on tradition with her king cake. It’s stuffed with bananas, caramel, mascarpone cheese, and roasted pecans, and then topped with praline glaze and gold leaf. Rather than using a baby, she reverts to a mashup of traditions: the French tradition of using a bean and the southern plantation owner of using a gemstone. White gilds a fava bean with gold as an homage to both. Her recipe comes to us from Chef John Besh.
- 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 95 degrees Fahrenheit
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 3¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup melted butter
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange zest
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- Fresh Bananas
- Roasted pecans
- Praline glaze
- Gold leaf
- 4 ounces mascarpone cheese
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 ounces powdered sugar, sifted
- 4 ounces brown sugar
- 4 ounces butter
- 1 ounce molasses
- 2 ounces heavy cream
- 4 ounces praline liqueur
Directions: Pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and yeast have dissolved.
Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and zest. Add remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm, draft free place to let it rise for 1½ hours or until it doubles in size.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and roll dough out to as square as possible and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Then, as tightly as possible, roll up like a cinnamon roll, pinch ends closed, and shape into oval tucking ends under each other. Then place on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Once it’s doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven until the oval is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and cool approximately 30 minutes.
After it cools, slice the top third off the oval, setting aside.
Make the mascarpone while the cake is in the oven. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat at medium speed, scraping down the sides when necessary, until smooth. When smooth, add mascarpone and beat again until smooth. Add the powdered sugar, mixing until smooth, and then refrigerate to firm.
While the cake is cooling, make the praline glaze. Place sugar, molasses, and butter in saucepan over medium heat continue cooking until bubbly and whisk it. Once mixture is bubbling, take off the heat and slowly add cream and whisk. Once thoroughly combined whisk in Praline Liqueur. Keep warm.
To compile: Smear the bottom half with caramel, then layer on sliced fresh bananas, mascarpone cheese, roasted pecans, and then the place the top back on. Transfer to a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Slowly pour the warm praline glaze on the top. If desired, decorate with gold leaf.
7. Vegan King Cake
The lactose-intolerant and vegan crowd shouldn’t be left out of king cake enjoyment! This recipe from Apron Strings has been adapted for those who don’t eat animal products. This one has a delicious pecan filling and uses coconut oil instead of butter to add richness to the dough. Remember that unrefined coconut oil will add a tropical twist to your cake, whereas a refined oil will be more subdued.
- 1 cup light coconut milk
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- ¾ cup warm water
- ½ cup plus one tablespoon sugar, divided
- 2 tablespoons golden flax meal, stirred into ⅓ cup warm water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 5½ cups flour
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ cup pecans, chopped, reserving a single pecan half intact as the “prize”
- ½ cup flour
- ½ cup coconut oil
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon warm water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- A few tablespoons each of purple, yellow, and green sugar sprinkles
Directions: In a small pot, bring coconut milk just to a boil, then immediately remove from heat and stir in ¼ cup coconut oil. Set aside to cool down to room temperature. In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in the water with 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Let stand approximately 10 minutes, until foamy.
Stir in the cooled coconut milk and oil. Whisk in the flaxmeal and water mixture. Add the remaining half cup of sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Using a rubber spatula, mix the flour into the liquid one cup at a time. When the dough has formed into a cohesive ball, place on a floured counter and knead until stretchy, about 5 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise for 2 hours. Dough should roughly double in volume.
While pastry dough rises, make the filling. Combine light brown sugar, cinnamon, chopped pecans and flour. Melt the ½ cup coconut oil and stir into sugar mixture, mixing to the texture of crumbly wet sand.
Once 2 hours have passed and the dough has doubled, punch down the dough and divide into two. Roll the two halves into two large rectangles, about 10 to 12 inches long. Sprinkle each half with brown sugar filling, then roll up jelly-roll style, starting with the long side. Bring ends together to form a circle, pinching ends together to seal.
Using a sharp knife or scissors, make 2-inch cuts about every 3 inches around each circle. Hide the intact pecan half by tucking into the dough through one of the vents.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare two baking sheets with silicone mats or parchment. Let dough rise for another half an hour. Place each circle on its own sheet, and set a ceramic ramekin or baking ring in the centers to help hold their shape. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before decorating.
Whisk the water and vanilla extract into the powdered sugar and drizzle liberally with icing. Sprinkle alternating stripes of purple, yellow and green sparkles.