Before , my experience with New Orleans was comprised of beignets at Café du Monde, my first (and hopefully last) hurricane, and a visit with a psychic (he may not have possessed mind-reading powers, but he did regale my friend and me with stories of his days spent partying with Liza Minnelli).
Now that I’m engaged to a bona fide New Orleanian, all that has changed. On our third date, Ted taught me how to peel and devein a shrimp in under three seconds. Now with Mardi Gras fast approaching, I felt it was my responsibility to try my hand at one of the oldest traditions in the book: making a King Cake. A King Cake, for those of you who don’t already know, is a bready type of cake eaten during Mardi Gras that often has a small trinket (a plastic baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, or a small fava bean) hidden within.
But let me be honest here. When I told Ted that I would be attempting the baking of said King Cake, he burst out laughing. “No one in New Orleans actually bakes the cake,” he said. “You go out to the bakery and buy it during Mardi Gras.” Undeterred, I called up Crooks’ Corner chef and author of Seasoned in the South, Bill Smith, who more or less repeated exactly what Ted had told me.
I refused to give up and let the cake get the best of me, however. Armed with a copy of John Besh’s My New Orleans (a fantastic gift from my mother-in-law to be), I set aside the rainy Sunday before Mardi Gras to tackle the recipe.
I’ll admit, there were some problems. The grocery store didn’t have purple sprinkles, so the cake’s decorations called to mind “Green Bay Packers” colors rather than Mardi Gras colors. I also couldn’t find a tiny plastic baby. (I thought about hiding a toy truck in the cake, but Ted nixed that idea.) The icing wouldn’t really mix together after I added, as the recipe advised, ¼ cup of condensed milk: I dumped almost half a can in before I could make it spreadable. But several hours later, after all was said and done, Ted was the first to admit that I came pretty close in replicating what he grew up with. And everyone at Algonquin loved the cake so much that they’re now having me bake one each week. (Winner!)
–Megan Fishmann, Publicist
See below the video for the King Cake recipe.
For the cake:
- 1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°F
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup melted butter
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- Several gratings of fresh nutmeg
For the icing:
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
1 fève (fava bean) or plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking
1. For the cake, pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.
2. Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a large rubber spatula.
3. After the dough comes together, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, shape it into a large ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes.
4. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a draft-free place to let it proof, or rise, for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay the braided dough on a nonstick cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.
6. Once it’s doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
7. For the icing, while the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar, condensed milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and very spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if it’s a touch too loose, add a little more powdered sugar.
8. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the fève or plastic baby into the underside of the cake and, using a spatula, slide the cake onto a platter.