Ring-shaped, gaudily decorated with golds, greens and purples, and always containing a hidden trinket of some sort, often a tiny plastic baby, the king cake is a tradition as firmly rooted in French culture as New Orleans itself. That said, the iconic treat is increasingly open to interpretation and embellishment, as the city's home cooks, pastry chefs and bakeries put their own spin on it.—Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers
Total time includes 2 hours for the dough to rise.
For the cake:
- 1 Cup warm milk, about 110 degrees
- 1/2 Cup granulated sugar
- 2 Tablespoons dry yeast
- 3 3/4 cups flour, plus more for kneading
- 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 Teaspoon vanilla
- 1 Teaspoon lemon zest
- 3 Teaspoons cinnamon
- Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
For the icing:
- 2 Cups confectioners' sugar
- 1/4 Cup condensed milk
- 1 Teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- Purple, green and gold decorative sugars
- 1 bean or small plastic baby
For the cake:
Step 1: Pour 1 cup warm milk into a bowl. Whisk in 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons dry yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour, mixing until sugar and yeast have dissolved. Allow to rest until bubbles have developed on the surface.
Step 2: Whisk in 2 sticks (1 cup) melted, unsalted butter, 5 beaten eggs yolks, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 teaspoon lemon zest. Add remaining flour, 3 teaspoons cinnamon and several gratings of fresh nutmeg; fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients with a spatula.
Step 3: When the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl (you may need to add 1-2 tablespoons flour), shape it into a large ball. Knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic, adding a little flour if needed, about 10-15 minutes.
Step 4: Return dough to bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.
Step 5: Heat oven to 350 F. Punch down dough; divide into 3 equal pieces. Roll pieces into long ropes, each about 2 inches wide and of equal length. Braid ropes around one another; form loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay loaf on a nonstick cookie sheet; let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.
Step 6: Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool, 30 minutes.
For the icing:
Step 1: Whisk together the confectioners' sugar, condensed milk and lemon juice in a bowl until smooth and spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if too loose, add a little confectioners' sugar.
Step 2: Spread the icing over the cooled cake; sprinkle with decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the bean or plastic baby into the underside of the cake; slide the cake onto a platter to serve.