Lent begins on Wednesday, but I challenge you to find someone in New Orleans who will tell you there still isn’t time for indulgence. Here in Charlotte there have been no beads, gumbo, or intoxicating Hurricanes, but this morning I like to think that my house smelled like a French Quarter bakery. On the eve of Fat Tuesday, I celebrated Mardi Gras by baking King Cake.
King Cakes are traditionally served on the 12th day after Christmas in honor of the Wise Men bringing gifts to baby Jesus. They are not limited to that evening however. King Cakes are shared and enjoyed throughout the Mardi Gras season right up to Ash Wednesday. In France, cooks bake a fava bean in their King Cakes for good luck, but in New Orleans small plastic babies are the treasure of choice. Tradition holds that those that find the baby in their slice of cake must continue the festivities by hosting another gathering, or at the very least, making another King Cake to be enjoyed by all.
Originally, King Cakes were simply a ring of brioche dough decorated simply with a powdered sugar glaze and colored sugar, but these days you’ll find much more elaborate variations. Braided loaves are common as are embellishments such as fillings containing cream cheese, nuts and/or raisins. In researching recipes, I stumbled across this one published in Southern Living that uses sour cream. Intrigued I gave it a try and loved the tangy flavor and moistness of the final product. I feature that straightforward recipe, only slightly adapted by me, below.
This recipe makes two King Cakes. Slices of the first King Cake were cut before it had completely cooled, but I plan on freezing the second King Cake for later enjoyment. I think it will make a colorful addition to my table for Easter breakfast. Happy baking!
The use of sour cream in the original recipe piqued my interest and led me to sample it in my kitchen. I was not disappointed. The sour cream makes a moist cake with an irresistible tangy flavor. For a traditional cake, be sure to include a fava bean or plastic baby in each cake for good luck (and then remember to warn your guests!).
For the dough:
1 (16-ounce) container sour cream
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
zest from 2 small lemons (about 1 teaspoon)
4 to 4-1/4 cups bread flour
For the filling:
Flour, for the countertop
1/3 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 small plastic babies or fava beans (optional)
For the glaze:
3 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Decorating sugars in the colors of purple, green, and gold/yellow
Combine the sour cream, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, unsalted butter, and salt in a small saucepan. Stir, over medium-low heat, until the butter melts. Remove from the heat and cool until warm to the touch.
In a small bowl, stir together the yeast, warm water, and the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Allow to sit until mixture begins to foam. If mixture does not foam, discard and start again with new yeast.
Beat the sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs, lemon zest, and 2 cups of the flour in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a bread hook at medium speed until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the remaining 2 cups of flour until a soft dough forms that pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl.
Dust a clean countertop with some of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Turn the dough out of the bowl and onto the countertop and knead for about 8 minutes, adding flour as needed, until smooth. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for 1 hour or until double in size.
Put racks in the top and bottom third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Dust the countertop lightly with flour. Punch the dough down and divide it into two portions. Roll each half into a 22 x 12-inch rectangle. Divide the 1/3 cup softened butter between each half and spread over each rectangle leaving a 1-inch border. Stir together the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the butter on each rectangle. If including a plastic baby or fava bean in your cake, place it in the center of the rectangle now. Roll up each rectangle starting at the long side. Place one roll, seam side down, on a baking sheet and bring the edges together to form an oval ring. Pinch the edges together to seal. Repeat with the second dough roll placing on the second prepared baking sheet.
Cover dough rings lightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 20 to 30 minutes until double in bulk.
Bake cakes on the top and bottom racks at 375 degrees until golden brown, about 18 to 20 minutes. Switch baking sheets halfway through cooking for best results. Cool cakes on wire racks for about 10 minutes.
While cakes are cooling, make the glaze by stirring together the powdered sugar, milk, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. Stir until smooth then drizzle the glaze over the cake. Sprinkle with the colored sugars, alternating the colors to form bands. Cool completely and then serve. Remember to alert guests if you have baked the cakes with a fava bean or plastic baby so they know to be on the look-out!