King Cake

Homemade King Cake

King Cake

This may come as a big surprise to many, but most of us New Orleanians do not make our own King Cakes. We prefer, instead, to patronize our favorite bakery for our Carnival confections. And there’s a certain lineage that typically dictates our most cherished bites. That lineage, more often than not, is defined by family loyalty to a specific bakery. For instance, if mom favors Haydel’s King Cakes, chances are those are the King Cakes her kids and grandkids will ultimately prefer.

As a kid, my favorite King Cakes were the simple brioche-based, icing-less ones from McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes. I loved them so much that I chose them as my birthday cake for many, many years. McKenzie’s “ain’t dere no more.” But in recent years, Tastee Donuts acquired their recipes and has brought many of McKenzie’s top sellers, including their King Cakes, back to life. I still pick one up on occasion but these days I prefer the other, Danish-style King Cakes. They are the ones filled with cinnamon sugar and topped with a super-sweet white icing and Carnival colored sprinkles. And because—and only because—so many of you have asked me for a King Cake recipe, that’s the style I’ve learned to prepare from scratch. Although I had no interest in learning how to make King Cakes prior to those requests, I’m so happy I took on the challenge. Thanks for the nudge!

King Cake

If you’re ready to try your hand at King Cake baking, here’s my recipe. But it comes with a caveat. When making a King Cake, please honor the traditions—form the cake into an oval, hide a plastic baby inside, decorate the top with the colors of Mardi Gras (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power) and only make it during the Carnival season–January 6 through Mardi Gras Day (always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which this is February 17). Although it is a time-consuming process, scratch King Cake-making is well worth the effort and the bragging rights.

King Cake Recipe

Print Recipe

Print Recipe

Cinnamon Sugar Filling

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt


3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons whole milk


1 cup lukewarm whole milk (about 110 degrees F)
1/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 whole egg
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
Canola or vegetable oil, for proofing dough
Purple, green and gold colored sugar, for garnish
Small plastic baby*

FOR FILLING: In a medium bowl, combine the softened butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt; set aside.

FOR ICING: In the bowl of an electric mixer with whisk attachment, combine the powdered sugar, melted butter, lemon juice, vanilla and 2 tablespoons milk. Whisk on medium-low speed until smooth. Add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time as necessary to reach a spreadable consistency. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside. Do not refrigerate.

FOR CAKE: In a large bowl, combine the sugar and yeast. Add warm milk and whisk until sugar and yeast are dissolved. Let sit until bubbles develop on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, about 10 minutes. Whisk in melted butter, eggs and vanilla. Using a rubber spatula, gradually fold in flour. When the dough starts pulling away from the side of the bowl, shape into a ball and knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes. Transfer dough to a large bowl lightly coated in oil. Turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free area until dough has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Once dough has risen, punch it down and roll into a rectangle about a 1/2-inch thick. Spread filling evenly onto dough. Fold dough in half lengthwise then gently press down to seal. Cut lengthwise into 3 strips. Gently stretch each dough strip then braid the 3 strips. Form the dough braid into an oval and pinch the ends to close the oval. Transfer braid to a large, nonstick baking sheet. Tent with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place braid in oven and bake until golden brown, 20-30 minutes, depending upon oven. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

ASSEMBLY: Once cake has cooled, hide the plastic baby inside by pushing it into the bottom of the cake. With a rubber spatula, spread icing evenly over top of cake. Decorate with colored sugars, alternating purple, green and gold. Serve warm, cold or at room temperature. Makes 10-12 servings.


*Plastic King Cake babies can be purchased at craft stores or through online sources like the Mardi Gras Outlet.

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5 Responses
  1. M. says:

    Woo-hoo! Living in many places NOT NOLA, I had to bake King Cake if I wanted it at all. Being a McKenzie’s icing-less King Cake girl, it was not TOO hard to come up with a good recipe. Now my DH and DC “not from here” love King Cake, too. We are grateful when my sisters et al, still blessed enough to be living in NOLA, send us a Haydel’s King Cake. One of my DC has decided this year that King Cake MUST have cinnamon filling, so I am most grateful for this recipe, Gen. Thanks a bunch.

    As for the baby, I KNEW there was a reason I was saving all those babies for all those years!

    Time to go bake.

  2. Frank Speyerer says:

    Story of the King Cake ________________________________________

    The story of the king cake begins, like the story of Mardi Gras itself, with the pagans. They had a celebration where a young man from the village was chosen to be treated like a king for a whole year. He was not denied during his reign, but after the year was over he became a human sacrifice to the gods. To eliminate this pagan custom, the Christian Church encouraged an observance calling for the preparation of a king cake containing a bean; whoever received the slice with the bean became king for a week and was allowed to choose a queen to reign with him. This took the place of the sacrificial pagan rite.

    The King Cake tradition is believed to have been brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, from France in the 1870’s. It evolved from the Twelfth Night or Epiphany pastry made by those early settlers. They added their own touches with the Spanish custom of choosing Twelfth Night royalty.

    In European countries, the coming of the wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. The celebration, called Epiphany, Little Christmas on the Twelfth Night, is a time of exchanging gifts and feasting. All over the world people gather for festive Twelfth Night celebrations. One of the most popular customs is still the baking of a special cake in honor of the three kings…”A King’s Cake” or Gateau de Roi.

    A King Cake’s ring shape, too, is significant, as some believe it symbolizes the unity of all Christians, and others believe it aptly resembles a king’s crown.

    A dried bean was originally hidden inside the cake but was replaced by coins, peas, pecans, rubber dolls, porcelain dolls, and in recent years plastic dolls. Starting around the 1930s, a tiny naked baby (Frozen Charlotte) was used instead of the bean or pea. The baby can be pink, brown, or golden. Some people believe that the baby represents the baby Jesus because Twelfth Night was when the three kings found the baby in Bethlehem.

    Tradition has it that the person who finds the baby in the king cake is the next queen or king, he or she receives a year of good luck, is treated as royalty for that day and must host the next king cake party.

    King Cake season lasts throughout Mardi Gras from the feast of the Epiphany until Mardi Gras Day.

    The royal colors of purple, green and gold on the cake honors the three kings who visited the Christ child on the Epiphany. Purple represents Justice. Green stands for Faith. Gold signifies Power.

    The three colors appeared in 1872 on a Krewe of Rex carnival flag especially designed for the visiting Grand Duke of Russia. He came to New Orleans just for the carnival, and the universal colors remain his legacy.

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