Wednesday, January 19, 2011

90 Hours in NOLA, Part III - Twelfth Night & King Cake

One final highlight from New Orleans...our visit coincided with the start of the Carnival or Mardi Gras season, and we were able to see some festivities marking Twelfth Night, a festival to celebrate the Epiphany.  (In Christianity, Twelfth Night - January 6th, is the celebration of the night the three wiseman visited the baby Jesus and concludes the twelve days of Christmas.)

Doesn't he look like he's thinking of Baby Jesus?

That evening we learned about two annual celebrations for January 6.  The first honors Joan of Arc's birthday with the Krewe De Jeanne D'Arc's parade around the French Quarter.  A young woman portraying Joan of Arc wore a breastplate and carried a battle sword.  Other members of the krewe dressed in medieval style and some rode horses and passed out medallions.  The second celebration takes place Uptown on the St. Charles Streetcar line.  The Phunny Phorty Fellows ride the streetcar for the duration, tossing beads, singing, and enjoying refreshments.

Twelfth Night is also the beginning of king cake season.  This cake takes its name from the Christian biblical three kings.  Catholic tradition states that their journey to honor the Christ child took twelve days.  The season for the king cake extends from the Epiphany to Mardi Gras day.

The cake comes in a number of styles, the most simple is a ring of twisted brioche-like bread dough with a cinnamon-sugar filling and topped with icing or sugar in the Carnival colors of purple, green, and gold.  The cake usually has a small trinket (a bean, nut, small plastic baby, or another symbol) inside, and the person who get the slice of cake containing the trinket has various privileges or obligations.  In New Orleans, traditions holds that whoever finds the trinket is considered "king" of the party, but must provide the next king cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.

I collected a couple of recipe books and food essays while in New Orleans, and I used them as a guide to bake my own king cake.

King Cake
Makes 12-inch cake

1/4 cup warm (not hot) water
2 1/4 tsps active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm (not hot) milk
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
2 Tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp orange zest
3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs

4 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 pecan half

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 to 2 Tbsp milk
food coloring for purple, green, and gold

For the dough:  Before starting, I lightly warmed my mixing bowl in the oven because our house was so cold and I wanted to create a good environment for my yeast dough.  Pour warm water into the warmed bowl and sprinkle with yeast.

Stir in warm milk, butter, sugar, nutmeg, salt, and orange zest.

Add 1 cup of flour and blend well.

Stir in eggs and add enough of remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface.  Knead until smooth and elastic, less than 5 minutes for me. Add more flour if the dough is sticky.

Put dough in large greased bowl and flip the dough to grease both sides.  Cover with towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size.  It took me about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

For filling:  Once dough has doubled in size, punch down.  Transfer to floured surface and using a rolling pin, roll into a large rectangle.  (Mine was about 14" x 24".)

Brush with melted butter.

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, then sprinkle over the dough.

Then, roll it up tightly from the long side, like a jelly roll.

What you do next depends on what shape you want for your cake.  I decided to cut the roll in half, lengthwise and then twist the halves into a ring or wreath shape.

Transfer the cake to a greased baking sheet.  If you are using a dried bean or pecan half, now is the time to push it into the underside of the dough and hide it in the cake.  (Plastic charms go in after baking.)

Cover and let it rise again in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, about half an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned.

You may want to remove the cake from the baking sheet and let it cool on a wire rack.  If you are using a plastic charm, push it into the underside of the cooling cake.

For the frosting:
In a small bowl mix together powdered sugar, almond extract, and milk until smooth.

Divide among three bowls and tint one mixture purple, one green, and the other gold.  Mix well and drizzle each color over the cake.


  1. Wow this looks like a massive danish pastry! Yum..

  2. Oh wow...this looks like an edible christmas wreath. I have never made a cake that used yeast...very interesting :)

  3. You nailed it, is a Christmas wreath. Tradition holds that it was baked as part of the 12 days of Christmas and eaten at the end. Some legends even claim the cake was hung on the door.

  4. King cakes are just heaven! What a cool experience--that first photo gave me a good laugh!

  5. Thanks, Spicy Perspective! Yeah, we laughed when we saw that guy preparing for Mardi really struck me as a New Orleans moment. And, yes, king cakes are just heaven.

  6. I know I started at the end of the cake, but wow do I love king cake! Filled, not filled, however, whenever. Thank for sharing your king cake and those NOLA pics. I'm sure that guy was totally thinking hard on the baby Jesus.