A Brief History of Mardi Gras and the King Cake
This article first appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of EDM.
By Michele D. Baker
The modern American Mardi Gras season (Carnival) officially begins on Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Coming from a Greek verb that means “to show,” Epiphany pays tribute to the Catholic belief that Jesus first showed himself to the three wise men and to the larger world on this day.
The festivities last from Epiphany until Lent, with “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras, in French) being the last day of revelry and decadence before the more sober period of Lent begins.
Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday has a moveable date and may occur on any Tuesday from February 3 to March 9, as the date is set according to when Easter falls each year. It’s always the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which lasts 46 days until the celebration of Easter. This year, Mardi Gras is February 21.
One of the most enduring traditions during Carnival is feasting on “king cake,” again named because of the Biblical story of the three wise kings who brought gifts to Baby Jesus. A ring-shaped blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll, it is frequently packed with fruit and decadent cream cheese fillings.
The history of the colors on a king cake is also deep and intriguing. Most king cakes are traditionally decorated with the royal color purple, which signifies justice; green for growth; and gold, representing prosperity and wealth. These colors resemble a jeweled crown, and in fact, the traditional Spanish version of this cake is called Roscón de Reyes (crown of the king).
In the past, such things as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were also hidden in each cake. Today, a tiny plastic baby is the most used item, though chocolate babies or other edibles are sometimes used instead. At a Mardi Gras party, the king cake is sliced and served fresh. Each reveler looks to see if their piece of king cake contains the baby. If so, that person is declared “king for a day” and bound by historical Mardi Gras custom to host the next party, thus sparking an unending round of food and fun. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Betty Crocker’s King Cake This recipe has a lot of steps, but don’t worry… it’s not as hard as it seems, and freshly baked king cake is hard to beat. The brioche style dough is beautiful to work with and offers up a moist, buttery cake.
Ingredients for the cake:
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) Rapid Rise yeast
1 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into 12 pieces
Mix 2-1/2 cups flour and yeast in mixing bowl of stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, on low for about 30 seconds.
Heat milk, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, and milk is between 120°F to 130°F.
With mixer on low, pour in liquids and mix until incorporated. Add eggs one at a time. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms.
Clean off paddle and switch to dough hook. Mix in the remaining 1 cup flour a little at a time, adding more (or less) flour as needed to make a soft dough.
Add the softened butter, a piece at a time, kneading until each piece of butter is absorbed.
Knead for 8 minutes on low. The dough should completely clear the sides of the bowl. If it is too sticky, add additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more flour is needed. If the dough seems too dry, spritz with water from a spray bottle a couple of times, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more water is needed. Every 2 minutes, stop the machine, scrape the dough off the hook, and then continue kneading.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times by hand to be sure it’s smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball. Place dough into a greased bowl. Turn once so greased surface is on top. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
For the Cinnamon Filling:
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
While the dough is chilling, make cinnamon filling.
In small bowl, combine the brown sugar and ground cinnamon. Combine butter with cinnamon mixture (and pecans, if using) and mix well.
Roll the chilled dough into a 10” x 20” rectangle. Spread the filling on half of the long side of the dough. Fold the dough in half covering the filling. Pat dough down firmly so the dough will stick together. Cut dough into three long strips. Press the tops of the strips together and braid the strips. Press the ends together at the bottom. Gently stretch the braid so that it measures 20” again. Shape into a circle/oval and press the edges together.
ALTERNATE METHOD: Roll the dough into a 10" x 20" rectangle and spread the filling evenly over the surface. From a long side, roll into a 20" jelly roll with filling swirl. Shape into a circle/oval and press the ends together.
Transfer the ring to a parchment lined or greased baking sheet. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350°. Bake the cake until it is golden brown, 20-35 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes on baking sheet and then place it on a cooling rack to cool completely before icing. To hide the baby in the cake, make a small slit in the bottom of the cake and push the miniature plastic baby in after the cake has cooled.
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
In a small bowl, mix powdered sugar, milk and vanilla until smooth (add additional milk if mixture is too thick, or powdered sugar if too thin). Spoon icing over top of the cake. Immediately sprinkle on colored sugars, alternating between the three colors: dark green, purple and yellow or gold.