David Guas’s King Cake
New Orleanians celebrate the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the Carnival season on the same day: January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, also known as King Day for the three Magi to whom the baby Jesus was first revealed to the world. The day has its distinctive dish: king cake, inherited along with the rest of New Orleans’s French culture. King cake is as popular in New Orleans as any other local specialty. We start seeing king cakes in large numbers right after Christmas, and they’re everywhere until Mardi Gras. In recent years, bakeries have begun making king cakes much earlier–in Christmas, Thanksgiving, and even Halloween colors. I am opposed to this spread of what is more enjoyable in its season, but know that the trend is unstoppable.
Here’s something else I know: Unless you really enjoy baking and are good at making yeast breads, it’s not worth the trouble to make your own king cake. It’s the kind of thing that a commercial baker can turn out far more easily than the home baker. Not only that, but people are so accustomed to eating bakery-made king cake that they often reject as weird even a well-executed individual work.
I gave up on creating my own king cake recipe years ago. However, I have a baker friend in Washington D.C. who has a great recipe in his book GoodDamSweet. David Guas is a New Orleans guy who moved to D.C. with his wife Simone Rathle (who was for a long time the p.r. lady at the Windsor Court). So he understands the concept of king cake and what people expect of it. He has his own artisinal bakery in the D.C. area, and his book is terrific. I add more cinnamon when I bake his recipe, but otherwise it’s perfectly to my taste.
- 1 (1-1/4-oz.) package dry-active yeast
- 1/4 cup warm milk (105°F–115°F or warm to the touch)
- 1 cup plus 6 Tbs. bread flour plus extra for rolling
- 1 Tbs. honey
- 3/4 cup cake flour
- 2 large whole eggs plus one large egg yolk
- 2 Tbs. granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp. almond extract
- 1 tsp. salt
- 5 Tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Egg wash:
- 1 large egg
- 1 Tbs. milk
- Icing and decoration
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 2 Tbs. light corn syrup
- 3 Tbs. milk
- 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- Green food coloring
- Gold or yellow food coloring
- Purple or red and blue food coloring
1. Whisk the yeast with the warm milk in the bowl of a stand mixer until dissolved. Add 6 Tbs. bread flour and the honey. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed until smooth with a few small lumps, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled in volume, about 20 minutes.
2. When the dough is doubled, add 3/4 cup bread flour, and all the cake flour, eggs, egg yolk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and almond extracts, and salt. Mix on low speed until combined, then switch to a dough hook. Increase the speed to medium, and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.
3. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and add 4 Tbs. of butter, one Tbs. at a time, mixing well between additions. Continue to knead until the dough forms a slack ball that will hang loosely on the dough hook and be sticky to the touch. (It shouldn’t slap the bowl, but it should hold together). This should take 2-3 minutes. If the dough doesn’t hold together, add up to 1/4 cup of bread flour and keep kneading until it does.
4. Coat the inside of a large bowl with 1/2 Tbs. of butter. Transfer the dough to the bowl, turning it over in the bowl to coat with butter. Cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough has doubled in size–about 1 hour.
5. Line a rimmed baking sheet pan with parchment paper. Coat the parchment paper with the remaining butter. Generously flour your work surface with bread flour. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and sprinkle the top with flour. Using your hands, press and flatten it into a rectangle.
6. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a 1/4-inch-thick strip about 24 inches long by about 6 inches wide. Starting with one of the long sides, roll the dough on top of itself, making a long, thin baguette-shaped length. Pinch the edge to the body of the dough to seal. Then turn the dough so it lies horizontally on your work surface, and gently roll it to even out any bulges and create a more or less consistent 1 1/2-inch-wide rope. Bring the two ends of the dough together and pinch them together.
7. Carefully transfer the dough oval or circle to the prepared sheet pan. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap. Set in a warm, dry spot to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
8. Heat the oven to 375°F. Whisk the egg and milk together in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash over the top and sides of the dough, and bake the king cake until golden and cooked through, 25 to 30 minutes. Set on a rack to cool completely.
9. Make the icing while the cake cools. Whisk the confectioners’ sugar, corn syrup, milk, and vanilla together in a bowl until smooth and completely incorporated. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel until you are ready to glaze the cake.
10. To make the colored sugars, divide 1 cup of the sugar into three sealable quart-size plastic bags. Add 4 drops of green food coloring to one bag, 4 drops of gold or yellow to another, and 4 drops of purple to the last bag. (If you don’t have purple, mix 2 drops each of red and blue food coloring in a spoon, and mix with a toothpick.)Seal the bags and shake them to combine the sugar and food coloring.
11. When the cake is cool, spoon the icing over the cooled cake. Immediately after icing, decorate with the colored sugars in patches of one-third or one-sixth to surface area. Slice and serve immediately.