March 8, 2011

a tale of two King Cakes

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It’s Fat Tuesday!  In anticipation of the lean season of Lent, I spent the weekend getting some baking out of my system.

Growing up, the arrival of Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Carnevale usually brought a batch of my mother’s King Cake (adapted from a recipe she got from a friend years ago).  The cake is basically a huge cinnamon roll with purple, green, and gold sugar on top and a plastic baby hidden inside.  What could be better than a big, sweet ring of cake, cinnamon, butter, and brown sugar?

I never questioned the cake's authenticity until a few weeks ago, when we were treated to a weekend of authentic, New Orleans-style Mardi Gras parties thrown by the Mystick Krewe of Louisiana.  During one late-night gathering as they were cutting the King Cake, my Louisianan cousin commented that it just wouldn’t be authentic King Cake without cream cheese filling.  I had never heard of such a thing, but sure enough, the cake was filled with cream cheese.  The texture of the cake struck a lovely balance between cakey and flaky.  I was surprised by how much I liked it (and was tempted to go back for more).

When it came time to make my own King Cake this year, I wanted to try it with cream cheese and decided to do some experimenting.  The King Cake has a long, often disputed history, and the various incarnations of the traditional pre-Lenten treat are endless.  In New Orleans, there are probably as many versions as there are bakers.  I sifted through lots of recipes, very few of which included the desired cream cheese.  I finally found an Emeril Lagasse recipe on foodnetwork.com.  I figured if anyone had an authentic recipe, he would.

A few hours of kneading and rising later, I had a 1/2 batch of Emeril's cream-cheese-filled King Cake and a full batch of my mom's recipe, with various filling variations.

The two doughs were quite different.  For the same amount of water, butter, yeast, and salt, my mom’s recipe called for 2 eggs, 7 cups of flour, and a cup of water.  Emeril’s, on the other hand, called for 5 egg yolks, only 5 cups of flour , and no water.  My mom's came out more like a traditional cinnamon roll (fluffy and spongy with a moist chew) and Emeril's more brioche-like with a lighter mouth-feel and a drier crumb.
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my mom’s recipe is on the left; Emeril’s on the right

I loved the cream cheese filling.  The problem with Emeril's was that the lemon zest and nutmeg in the dough combined with the cream cheese filling made the whole thing taste like apples.  I have no problem with apples. They are one of my favorite foods.  But if I want an apple-stuffed pastry, I'll make an apple-stuffed pastry.

The problem with the family recipe was that once I'd tasted Emeril's dough, I realized how much it was really just a cinnamon roll.  I like cinnamon rolls, but as with the apples, I was going for something all little different.  It was certainly just a texture rather than a flavor issue.  I liked both the butter-pecan-cinnamon-brown sugar filling and the cinnamon-brown sugar-cream cheese filling I had tried, but I wanted a dough more similar to Emeril’s.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time or the audience for a third batch of King Cake, so I wasn’t able to come up with my ideal recipe.  I supposed it will have to wait until next year.  Instead, I’ll offer the recipes I used and some ideas if you feel like experimenting yourself.

You can find Emeril’s original recipe here.  If I were to make it again, I would omit the nutmeg and lemon from the dough and add cinnamon and brown sugar to the cream cheese filling.  I’d also sub milk and vanilla extract for the lemon juice in the glaze. It would look a little something like this:

King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling (adapted from Emeril’s King Cake)

Dough
5 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
4 tsp instant yeast (or two packages active dry yeast)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm milk (110 degrees F)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks

Filling
8 ounces cream cheese, softened slightly
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans (optional)

Glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons milk

Decorating Sugar
½ cup granulated sugar, divided in three (Color each with a few drops of yellow, green, or red/blue food coloring and toss with a fork in order create yellow, green, and purple decorating sugar.)

Plastic baby or coin

In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine yeast, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and milk.  Stir to combine. (If using active dry yeast, you must wait for the yeast to activate before adding the dry ingredients.  After several minutes, the mixture should begin to bubble.)

Add the flour and salt.   Stir until dough begins to come together.  Then, either mix with dough hook on lowest setting for 5 minutes (until dough pulls away from side of bowl and becomes smooth), or turn mixture onto floured surface and knead by hand for 5 minutes until dough is smooth, adding flour as necessary to prevent sticking. 

Place dough in a large, oiled bowl, turning dough over once so that all sides are coated.   Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1.5 to 2 hours.

When dough is almost finished rising, combine the cream cheese and ½ cup powdered sugar in a small mixing bowl. Mix well.

In another small bowl, stir together cinnamon and brown sugar.

When dough has risen, turn onto floured surface and roll until about 30 inches long by 6 inches wide.

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Spread the cream cheese in a wide strip down the center of the dough. Sprinkle with brown sugar mixture and optional pecans.
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Bring the two long edges together and use your fingers to press dough together, sealing all sides completely. DSC_0372 
Place dough on a greased baking sheet seam side down and carefully shape into a ring.
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Cover the ring with a damp tea towel or flour sack cloth and set in a warm place to rise for 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

Make the glaze: In a small bowl, combine 2 cups powdered sugar, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons milk. Whisk or beat until smooth.  If glaze is too thick, add more milk 1 teaspoon at a time.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Once dough is risen, remove towel and use a sharp knife, sharp scissors, or a lame to make several slits around the top of the ring. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
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Allow the cake to cool partially, then insert the plastic baby or coin into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the cake.

While cake it is still slightly warm, drizzle with glaze. DSC_0473 DSC_0474
Sprinkle with colored sugar, alternating purple, green, and gold
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Once cool, cut the cake into individual pieces and serve.


Alternatively, if you prefer a cinnamon roll-style cake, go with the following tried and true recipe.  There are two filling options – one with cream cheese and one without.

King Cake
(cinnamon-roll style)

Dough
3 ½ cups (16 oz) all-purpose flour, sifted
¼ cup (25 g) granulated sugar
2 tsp instant yeast (or 1 package active dry yeast)
1 tsp salt
½ cup water
½ cup milk
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 egg

Filling Option 1
¾ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup chopped pecans (optional)
Filling Option 2
 
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup powdered sugar
8 oz cream cheese, softened
Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons milk

Decorating Sugar
 
½ cup granulated sugar, divided in three (Color each with a few drops of yellow, green, or red/blue food coloring and toss with a fork in order create yellow, green, and purple decorating sugar.)

Plastic baby or coin

Sift and measure flour. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together sugar, yeast, salt, and 1 cup flour.  In a small sauce pan, heat milk, water, and butter over low heat until butter is melted and liquids are warm.  Set aside and allow to cool slightly (to about 110 degrees F). 

Gradually add liquid to dry ingredients and beat with paddle attachment at medium speed for about 2 minutes.  Add egg and 1 cup flour and beat at high speed for 2 minutes. Gradually add enough of remaining flour to make a stiff dough.  Switch from paddle attachment to dough hook and knead on low speed for 5 minutes until smooth (or turn dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand for 5-10 minutes until smooth).  Add flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Place dough in a large, oiled bowl, turning dough over once so that all sides are coated.   Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours. 

When dough is almost finished rising, prepare filling: 
Filling 1
In another small bowl, stir together cinnamon and brown sugar.
Filling 2
 
Combine the cream cheese and ½ cup powdered sugar in a small mixing bowl. Mix well. In another small bowl, stir together cinnamon and brown sugar.
Turn dough onto floured surface, punch down, and knead about 5 times.  Divide dough into two pieces.  One at a time, roll out each piece of dough until about 20 inches long and 6 inches wide.  DSC_0395

Spread butter or cream cheese over entire surface of dough and top with cinnamon/sugar mixture (and pecans, if using).
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Starting with the long side of the dough, roll into a spiral and pinch edges to seal.  Repeat with second piece of dough.  

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Twist each piece of dough and place on greased baking sheet.  Press ends together, forming one large ring with the two halves. 

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Cover the ring with a damp tea towel or flour sack cloth and set in a warm place to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Make glaze: In a small bowl, combine powdered sugar, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons milk. Whisk or beat until smooth.  If glaze is too thick, add more milk 1 teaspoon at a time.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Once dough is risen, bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Allow the cake to cool partially, then insert the plastic baby or coin into the ring under one of the folds.  While cake it is still slightly warm, drizzle with glaze. Sprinkle with colored sugar, alternating purple, green, and gold.
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Once cool, cut the cake into individual pieces and serve.

1 comment:

Hong Tran said...

thank you for posting your experiment with the king cake recipes. I have been searching for one too and was puzzled by the different variations. I can't wait to try this in time for Mardi Gras!

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