American Cakes – King Cake

A traditional recipe and history for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen

King cake is an oval- or ring-shaped sweet yeast bread, sometimes containing a filling and typically decorated with vibrant purple, green, and gold sugar or icing. The roots of this fun treat hark back to Europe, but the current New Orleans version reflects numerous local modifications, rendering it a truly American cake.

The first light cakes in Europe made their way from medieval Moorish Spain to Renaissance Italy and from there eventually throughout Europe. The loose dough was baked in massive quantities in large wooden rings, each cake typically weighing six to twelve pounds. These treats were rich with white flour, butter, eggs, and imported sugar, dried fruit, and spices. Because the ingredients were expensive, these cakes were reserved for very special occasions, notably weddings, christenings, and Epiphany.

The Roman Catholic Church chose the twelfth day from December 25th as the Feast of the Epiphany (Greek for “appearance”), commemorating the magi -— magi were Zoroastrian priests (also the source of the word magic), but in Christian tradition came to mean “wise men” and sometimes mistakenly called “kings.” January 6th marks Twelfth Day and the evening of January 5th is Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was celebrated with a host of customs, many dating back to the Saturnalia, including masquerades, clowning, social satires, and rowdy, frequently bawdy games. Among the most beloved and enduring Epiphany traditions was the special sweet yeast cake. Ancient Romans, during the Saturnalia festival, baked a fava bean, a symbol of fertility and the underworld, inside a ritual round barley bread. Around the end of the 14th century, this practice was readopted in Italy for the new Twelfth Night cakes. Whoever found the bean in their portion was supposedly assured of good luck for the coming year. The notion of “king,” derived from the token-finder and associated with the magi, gave rise to a special name for the bread – three kings cake or kings’ cake.

French and Spanish settlers (Creoles) brought to the Louisiana area their cuisines and holiday customs, eventually applied to the entire period from Epiphany through Mardi Gras. The last day before Lent, the forty-day season leading up to Easter, is Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French), known as Shrove Tuesday and Pancake Day in England and Martedi Grasso and Carnevale (probably “removal of meat”) in Italy. The date of Mardi Gras is determined by the lunar calendar and can occur anywhere from early February to early March. As it emerged in 13th century Italy, Carnevale — reflecting origins in ancient pagan spring fertility rites, notably the Roman circus-like Lupercalia and Bacchanalia — assumed an air of ritualized chaos, revelry, buffoonery, games, processions, masks, feasting, drinking, and sensuality.

A traditional recipe and history for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen

The first official krewe (Carnival society), Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded in 1857, which also staged the first organized and themed parade with floats, transforming Mardi Gras in New Orleans into a more controlled and safer environment. In 1872, the Rex Krewe adopted symbolic colors, those of Russia’s Romanov dynasty, for the festival -— purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power) — becoming the official colors of Mardi Gras. In 1875, Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a state holiday.

The name of gâteau des Rois eventually Anglicized to “king’s cake” or more commonly “king cake,” while the cake itself as well as its usage also changed. King cake in New Orleans, instead of noting the end of the Christmas season and limited to January 6 alone, marked the onset of Carnival and extended revelry. On every weekend from January 6th through Mardi Gras, groups, both small and massive, throughout the city held balls and parties, with king cake as the star — a pecan half sometimes substituted for the bean. Whoever found the token in their slice became king or queen and expected to throw the party or buy the cake for the following week. Following the French innovation, local New Orleans bakeries introduced various charms as the token for their king cakes. In the 1950s, small imported porcelain baby dolls from Hong Kong became a popular substitute for the bean -– according to local lore the result of a store purchasing too large of an order. When these proved a bit pricey, a 1-inch plastic doll was substituted –- today commonly inserted into the cake or arranged on top after baking. King cake is almost exclusively purchased from commercial enterprises and rarely homemade.

In 20th century New Orleans, a smaller braided oval or ring-shaped version of king cake about three-inches high, reminiscent of a bejeweled crown, became more prevalent. Formerly, the top of king cakes were bare or decorated with coarse sugar or dragees. More recently, the English-style icing became prominent. In addition, bakers began to sprinkle colored sugar (it adds a crunch) over the icing or tint the icing with the traditional purple, green, and gold hues. Beginning in 1972, an increasing number of bakers began filling king cakes with cinnamon-sugar -– transforming it into a large cinnamon roll. Other prevalent filling flavors followed, including almond paste, apple, chocolate, cream cheese (the most popular), lemon, and praline. A “Zulu king cake” — inspired by the Krewe of Zulu, famous since 1910 for passing out coconuts from their floats — features coconut cream filling (or cream cheese mixed with grated coconut) and dark chocolate icing.

A traditional recipe and history for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen

The original gâteau des Rois has a more pronounced flavor of egg, a drier and lighter texture, and is less sweet (and, of course, lacks a filling). Modern king cake dough typically incorporates a little more sugar and less butter and eggs than standard brioche, resulting in a slightly firmer dough –- capable of holding a shape and filling — and moister bread. The amount of ingredients in the dough and fillings and the type and quantity of icing embellishment all differ from bakery to bakery. The size widely varies. Several fast food franchises offer individual serving sized king cakes (basically a cinnamon roll).

Only in the 1960s did king cake — with the growing repute and economic significance of Mardi Gras and the cake receiving exposure on television commercials and newspaper articles — shift from being an upper class ball extravagance to a treat enjoyed on a wide scale by every element of southern Louisiana society. In 1989, a local bakery shipped 400 king cakes (the newer filled type) to food critics across America, engendering a wave of national publicity and interest. King cake was no longer only a local treat.

Each year, just in time for January 6th, these sweet breads suddenly appear in bakeries, doughnut shops, and groceries in southwest Louisiana, churned out in mass numbers and swiftly and repeatedly purchased -— and numerous more shipped throughout the United States. For the following weeks through Mardi Gras, king cake remains a staple in the region, ubiquitous at parties, workplaces, schools, and assorted gatherings. Then, just as abruptly as they arrive, at the end of Carnival season king cakes vanish from the stores, not to be offered again until the following Twelfth Night.

In order to extend the season (and sales), some bakeries recently began offering king cakes with alternate icing tints for other occasions: Red and green for Christmas; red and pink for Valentine’s Day; green and white for St. Patrick’s Day; orange and black for Halloween; and school colors during college football season. King cake makes a tasty and merry (if a bit garish) coffeecake any time of the year.

A traditional recipe and history for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen

Dough Ingredients

  • 1 package active dry yeast (¼-ounce/7 grams/2¼ teaspoons); 1 cake fresh yeast (0.6-ounce/18 grams); or 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115°F for dry yeast; 80 to 85°F for fresh yeast)
  • 1/2 cup warm milk (105 to 115°F for dry yeast; 80 to 85°F for fresh yeast) or sour cream
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar (1.75 ounces/50 grams)
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened (½ stick/2 ounces/57 grams)
  • 2 large egg yolks or 1 large egg
  • 3/4 tsp table salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon or cardamom (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract (optional)
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest (optional)
  • 2 tsp grated orange zest or orange blossom water (optional)
  • 2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (9.5 ounces/275 grams)
  • 1/4 -1/2 cup chopped candied citron, ½ cup chopped mixed candied fruit, or ½ cup golden raisins (5 ounces/140 grams)
  • Egg wash (1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon milk or water)

Cinnamon Filling Ingredients (optional):

  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (3.75 ounces/105 grams)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (1.25 ounces/35 grams)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch salt
  • 2/3 cup chopped slightly toasted pecans (2.5 ounces/70 grams), or 1/3 cup pecans (1.25 ounces/35 grams) and ¼ cup raisins (1.25 ounces/35 grams)
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted (½ stick/2 ounces/57 grams)
  • 1 pecan half, large bean, or other token (optional)

Icing Ingredients

  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar (4 ounces/115 grams)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened (¼ stick/1 ounce/28 grams), or ¼ cup cream cheese, softened (2 ounces/57 grams) (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • about 1 tbsp milk, buttermilk, fresh lemon juice, or water
  • a few drops gold food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons yellow colored sugar (optional)
  • a few drops green food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons green colored sugar (optional)
  • a few drops purple food coloring or 2 to 4 tablespoons purple colored sugar (optional)

You will also need

  • Mixing bowls, flat surface for kneading and rolling, rolling pin, pastry brush, baking sheet, cooling rack
Prep Time: 3 Hours 30 Minutes
Cook Time: 25 - 30 Minutes
Servings: 1 medium ring, 8-12 servings (For a crowd, double the recipe to make a large cake or two medium cakes)
  • To make the dough: In a small bowl or measuring cup, dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenIn a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, milk, sugar, butter, egg yolks, salt, and, for a flavored dough (but omit this if you are using a filling), the spice or zest.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenBlend in 1½ cups flour.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenGradually add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft workable dough.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenOn a lightly floured surface or in a mixer with a dough hook, knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 5 minutes.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenKnead in the citron, mixed candied fruit or golden raisins.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPlace in an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, or in the refrigerator overnight.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenTO MAKE THE OPTIONAL FILLING: In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the pecans. Drizzle the butter over top and mix until crumbly.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPunch down the dough and knead briefly.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenIF USING THE FILLING: Roll the dough into a 16- by 10-inch rectangle, spread evenly with the filling, leaving 1 inch uncovered on all sides. If using a token, place it on the rectangle – be sure to warn your guests.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenBeginning from a long end, roll up jelly roll style.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenThen bring the ends together to form an oval. THK NOTE- ours ended up looking more like a circle. For an oval shape, you may wish to make a longer, thinner rectangle.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPlace on a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet, seam side down. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap spritzed with cooking spray and let rise at room temperature until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPosition a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  • Brush the dough with the egg wash.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenBake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack.
  • IF NOT FILLING THE CAKE: Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a 24-inch-long rope. Braid the 2 ropes together, and bring the ends together to form an oval, pinching the ends to seal.
  • OR TO MAKE A 3 STRAND BRAID: Divide the dough in thirds and roll each piece into a 16-inch rope. THK NOTE: We made a 3 rope version, which comes out slightly more like a circle than an oval if your strands are 16 inches. If you prefer an oval shape, the strands should be closer to 20 inches.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenBraid by first connecting the ends of the ropes at one end.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenAs you braid, be sure that you are are pulling the strands gently taut to make a neat and even braid, otherwise your cake may bulge in some areas.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenWhen you are ready to connect the ends, unbraid a few inches at each end, then braid them together by connecting the corresponding pieces. For example, center rope to center rope.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPlace on a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet, seam side down. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap spritzed with cooking spray and let rise at room temperature until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenPosition a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  • Brush the dough with the egg wash.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenBake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenTO MAKE THE ICING: In a medium bowl, stir the confectioners' sugar, optional butter or cream cheese, vanilla, and enough milk until smooth and of a pouring consistency.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenIf desired, divide the icing into thirds and tint each third with one of the food colorings. Or you can drizzle or spread the icing over the warm cake.
  • A traditional recipe for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenWhile the icing is still wet, sprinkle with the colored sugar. THK NOTE: Decorating a King Cake neatly can be tricky, it is quite a messy process! We found the easiest way to do this neatly is to use a pastry brush to apply icing to each section, then sprinkle with sugar, let dry, and move on to the next section. For the braided cake, follow the braid pattern around the cake, using one color at a time and applying to each icing section directly after applying while still wet (the icing dries fast!). Then allow the icing to dry and gently tap off the excess sugar before starting the next color.
  • A traditional recipe and history for King Cake from food historian Gil Marks on The History KitchenServe warm or at room temperature. After cooling, the cake can be wrapped well in plastic, then foil and stored at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Do not cover with the icing before freezing.
  • VARIATIONS
  • Cream Cheese-Filled King Cake: Beat 8 ounces (225 grams) cream cheese at room temperature with 1 cup (4 ounces/115 grams) confectioners’ sugar, ½ egg yolk (use the rest for the egg wash), and ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract. This can be used with or without the cinnamon filling.
  • HINT – To make colored sugar, in a jar shake ¼ cup granulated sugar with 4 drops yellow, green, or purple food coloring.

About Gil Marks

Gil Marks writes about the history of American Cakes for The History Kitchen, revealing the history and culture of the United States through its classic treat. Gil is a leading authority on the history and culture of culinary subjects, as well as a James Beard Award-winning author, historian, chef and social worker. Read more...

Comments (16)Post a Comment

  1. Historical fact !!!!! Mobile, Alabama is the home of Mardi Gras in the USA…not New Orleans…slowly but surely people are learning this and ours is more family friendly

  2. The king cake I had , had a marzipan filling inside it, got it in new orleans at a french Bakery off of the french quarter it was soo good buttery flaky and almond marzipan was really good!

  3. Awesome! Can you please ask Gil for me WHY there are no desserts or cakes in Olive Trees and Honey cookbook?? It’s such a beautiful cookbook but when he brings out a cake like that?? Please explain! ;-)

    1. Because my book before Olive Trees and Honey was World of Jewish Desserts and I didn’t want to repeat. But I love desserts.

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