A delicious o-shaped pastry topped with coloured sugar sprinkles and stuffed with brown sugar praline, toasted pecans, and a tiny baby.
Three years ago I was invited to a Mardi Gras party in Nashville. With no idea of what I was getting myself into, I offered to bring the king cake. I have been to New Orleans a few times – including over Mardi Gras – but somehow had never come across a king cake, and when I googled it and read about it I started to panic a little. Apparently, these cakes are so time-consuming to make that many people order them from specialized bakeries in New Orleans–some of which will even deliver king cakes across the country! I like a challenge, but the king cake looked unlike anything I would normally bake or even the kind of thing I would normally opt to eat. I like traditional cakes but I’m not a big pastry or pie person, meaning that I would have to rely heavily on the testimonials of others if this was going to be good.
I started researching recipes, paying close attention to reviews. Most of what I read was not encouraging, as many people talked about spending all day making a cake that didn’t come out as desired. Then I came across a review of Mam Papaul’s Mardi Gras King Cake mix. The person reviewing it was from New Orleans and had tried a lot of king cakes in her time, but she vowed that this king cake – though made from a box – was the best she had ever tasted. Curiosity (and, okay, fear) got the best of me and I decided to order a box and give it a try.
I am normally the kind of person who likes to make things from scratch, but this version involves enough work (and leaves enough room for innovation) that you will feel like you made it from scratch by the time you finally wrangle a king cake from that box. The main thing they do is provide the ingredients, complete with baby and sugar sprinkles (though I prefer to use my own). The result is one of the most unusual but completely delicious cakes I have tasted. The bread is slightly sweet and not at all dry. The praline filling, which I like to mix with some lightly-toasted Texas pecans, is ridiculously good. And the deceptively ordinary-looking icing is one of the best parts of all, with a subtle almond flavor that makes it hard to resist taking another piece. And another. And another.
My son was only two years old the first time I made this cake for the Mardi Gras party, but he has requested it for his birthday every year since. Given that he is so young and has very few memories from even a year ago, I can’t believe he continues to request this every year. He turned five last week, and asked for a king cake again this year – this time for his actual birthday party. We were having 47 guests but he was pretty insistent, so I ended up making two king cakes over the course of two days. Altogether, they took me upwards of about 6 hours to make. But it was worth it. In fact, I think this was possibly the only time I have ever cleared mostly empty plates after serving cake to a bunch of kids at a party. Not surprising when you consider the fact that this cake looks like a gigantic rainbow donut!
In case you are curious about why this cake takes such a long time to make, here is a play-by-play of the baking process. First you add all the dry ingredients together with some eggs and butter, at which point you spend a good twenty minutes kneading the dough until it is ready to rise. The integrity of your cake depends on it rising properly, so this can be a slightly stressful time. The king cake I made last year in Chicago didn’t rise as well as the one I made the year before that in Nashville, and it was dense and dry and did not taste anywhere near as good as the one the previous year. For the two king cakes I made this past weekend for my son’s birthday, I set the bowls of dough on a heated stove with the oven door open and it still took them nearly an hour and a half to rise. It was worth the wait, as the end result was perfect.
Once the dough rises, you must stretch and roll it until it is long enough to shape into a large donut but still wide enough to stuff the praline and nuts into, while at the same time making sure that it doesn’t get so thin that it will break and leak the filling. The dough is sticky and hard to handle so you need a lot of flour to pull this part off. I add a lot of butter to the praline mix to make it moist and to make sure it extends for the entire cake, and I also like to toast some of the pecans that my grandmother brought me from Texas every year and throw them into the mix as well. Sadly, she passed away last year so this year’s cake saw the last of the Texas pecans. 😦
After that, you leave the cake out to rise once again, then bake it until it is a nice golden brown colour. I find this varies widely not only from oven to oven but also according to the humidity in your area (for example, the ones I made this past weekend only had to bake for 15 minutes before they were done, whereas it took them a good ten minutes more in Nashville). Then you let them cool and add the icing, then sprinkle the coloured sugar overtop. The cake mix comes with sugar sprinkles in traditional king cake/Mardi Gras colours (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power), but unless I am making this cake specifically for a Mardi Gras event I use my own naturally-dyed sugar sprinkles. For my son’s birthday party I made a rainbow cake, and because the sprinkles are dyed with natural ingredients like turmeric and blueberries the cake ended up looking a little bit like a piñata!
The final touch is to add a tiny plastic baby to the cake. The idea is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby in it has to bring the king cake the next year (and as you now know, this can be a bit of a task!). It is important that you don’t cook the cake with the baby in it – you don’t want the plastic to melt into the cake, and you also obviously don’t want to risk someone choking on the baby. I just slip the baby under the cake so it sticks into the bottom. I always make sure I keep track of which colour I hide it under–the birthday boy would be pretty disappointed if he didn’t get a baby in his piece of birthday king cake. 😉
So, could I make my own king cake without Mam Papaul’s help? Now that I’ve done it I’m sure that I could. But I am probably going to continue to make it from Mam Papaul’s box. For as much as I am an advocate of all things made from scratch, the flavours in this particular cake is what is so incredibly good about it. And I am just not convinced that I would like any other as much as I like Mam Papaul’s delicious Mardis Gras King Cake.