Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe

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A Traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake – cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar…

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A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar... ZagLeft

 

It’s Mardi Gras season in New Orleans!  Since we won’t be going back home this year for Mardi Gras, I’m bringing a little of the party into my own home with this luscious Traditional Mardi Gras Cream Cheese Filled King Cake.  

On many different occasions, I’ve written of how much I’ve loved growing up and living in New Orleans.  There isn’t a place in the world quite like the “Crescent City” and this particular time of the year is perhaps the most exciting time to visit.  The Mardi Gras festivities are well under way with grand balls at night, parades rolling down the tree lined streets on the weekends and parade-goers putting their final touches on their Mardi Gras Day costumes.  Fun times for sure!

In New Orleans, King Cake parties are held throughout the Mardi Gras season.  Usually hidden deep within the King Cake is a “baby”, often made of plastic which adds excitement, as each person who finds the baby is rewarded with “good luck” and is responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next party.  Since plastic “babies” are hard to find here in Texas, I use a large pecan.  Pecans don’t usually evoke the same reaction when they’re found, but it’s fun nonetheless.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar...

Every year since moving to Texas, I’ve been searching for a King Cake that tastes as good as they make ’em back home.  A King Cake that resembles a delicate danish pastry.  One with a moist dough that’s slightly sweet with a hint of citrus.

And filled!  Oh yes, they have to be filled and a cream cheese filling is certainly a favorite.

And the topping!  I can’t forget about the topping.  A sweet, sugary icing decorated with the traditional colors of Mardi Gras; purple, green and gold is also a must.

Since I can’t find the perfect King Cake in our local bakeries, I’ve got to make my own.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar...

My favorite King Cake comes from Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans.  Hands down, the best in the city.  My family would get several King Cakes from Haydel’s every year and when we saw them appear, we knew Mardi Gras was right around the corner.  Haydel’s has been in business in New Orleans for years and is a New Orleans institution.

The recipe I use for my own King Cakes is a recipe I adapted from Haydel’s Bakery.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar...

Here’s what you do…

Make up the dough.  I use my stand mixer for this part.  Blend the sugar, salt and melted butter together.  Then, add in the flour, eggs, and the yeast which was dissolved in milk. Haydel’s recipe calls for butter, orange and lemon flavoring, but I like to add fresh orange and lemon zest instead.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar...| zagleft

After making the dough,  let it rest by covering the bowl and leaving it alone for 1-1/2 hours.  This is a perfect time to color the sugar with the food coloring. After the dough rests and has almost doubled in size, take it out of the bowl, place it on a large surface and knead it for about 10 minutes. Roll the dough out into an oblong piece, brush it with canola oil and sprinkle the entire top with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.

Traditional New Orleans King Cake Recipe from ZagLeft - using cinnamon -sugar

Once the dough is covered completely with the cinnamon-sugar, fold it in half lengthwise. It will be a very long piece of dough.  As you can see from my picture, the dough extends over my large cutting board.

Making a King Cake - ZagLeft

Cut the dough into 3 strips.

*(Also see notes below – updated February 2017)

Making a New Orleans King Cake - ZagLeft

Next comes the fun part.  Braid the dough starting at one end and work your way down.  Shape the dough into a circle and transfer it to a parchment lined baking sheet.

King Cake Recipe - braiding the dough from ZagLeft

King Cake Recipe - braiding the dough 2 - Zagleft

King Cake Recipe from ZagLeft - forming into a circle

Cover and let the dough rest again for about an hour until it has almost doubled in size.

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft - letting the dough rest

Next, make the cream cheese filling by combining cream cheese, powdered sugar, lemon zest and milk. Since the King Cake is braided, you really can’t “fill” it.  So I pipe the filling directly on top of the dough and add a little extra in between the braids. This ensures you get the sweet cream cheese taste in every heavenly bite.

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft - piping the cream cheese filling

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft - piping the filling 2

King Cake Recipe - Zagleft - piping the filling 3

Bake the King Cake in a 370 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and prepare a sweet glaze made of sifted powdered sugar and milk.

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft - ready for the glaze

Drizzle the glaze over the top.

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft - adding the glaze

Top with the colored sugar.

King Cake Recipe - ZagLeft

King Cake Recipe from Zagleft - a traditional cinnamon and sugar king cake with a creamy cream cheese filling

Slice and serve.

Look at the layers of cinnamon and sugar in this slice of King Cake.  Can you see the rich and creamy cream cheese filling (topping) poking out from the sides? When the King Cake is baking, the filling “melts” into the cake so you get the sweet filling combined with the cinnamon sugar cake and the sweetened crunchy topping.

Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe | www.zagleft.com

 

Notes (February 2017):  I’ve been making King Cakes for years and I use this recipe every single time. this year, I made a simple change to the “braiding” method and I think it makes it so much easier.  Use either method you prefer.  I provided photos below…

After the dough is rolled out into an oblong piece, brushed with oil and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, instead of folding the dough in half, just cut the dough into three strips. Next, roll each strip of dough just as you would roll a cinnamon roll.  Braid as shown.

How To Make A King Cake \ zagleft.com

King Cake | zagleft

 

4 from 4 votes
A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe from ZagLeft
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Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe
Prep Time
3 hr
Cook Time
15 mins
Total Time
3 hr 15 mins
 
A traditional recipe for a New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake
Course: Dessert
Servings: 10 servings
Author: Joanie Zisk
Ingredients
DOUGH
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter , melted
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk (room temperature)
  • 2 small packets of active dry yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
CREAM CHEESE FILLING
  • 8 ounces cream cheese , softened
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar , sifted
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
GLAZE
  • 1 cup powdered sugar , sifted
  • 2 tablespoons milk
SUGAR TOPPING
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • a few drops of each: purple, green, and yellow food coloring
Instructions
  1. In an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 1/3 cup granulated sugar, salt and melted butter until well creamed.
  2. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition and continue to cream.
  3. Pour the milk into a small bowl and add the packets of yeast. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes until dissolved. Set aside.
  4. Add in the vanilla, orange zest and lemon zest to the mixing bowl and blend.
  5. Pour in the the milk and dissolved yeast and blend.
  6. Add the flour and mix on low until the dough tightens. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball and climbs slightly up the dough hook.
  7. Remove the dough from the bowl. Coat the dough with the canola oil. Return the dough to the bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set in a warm, draft-free place, and let it rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
  8. While the dough is resting, mix your colored sugars. Place 1 cup of granulated sugar in a ziplock bag. Add in 2-3 drops of food coloring. Close the bag and shake and caress the sugar until it is completely colored. Add more food coloring if necessary. Repeat this process with each of the colors, using a separate ziplock bag for each. Set aside to use later.
  9. After the dough has rested, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough for 10 minutes.
  10. Roll the dough out into an oblong piece.
  11. Brush the dough with canola oil covering the entire piece.
  12. In a small bowl, mix together 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar liberally over the entire piece of dough.
  13. Once the dough is covered with the cinnamon sugar and oil, fold it in half lengthwise.
  14. Cut the dough into 3 long strips and lay the strips side-by-side. Now it's time to braid the dough.
  15. (Braiding dough is just like braiding hair)
  16. Grab the center of the right strand and cross it over the middle strand, drop it in the center.
  17. Grab your left strand and cross it over the middle strand.
  18. Repeat these steps until you have braided your dough to the very end. Pinch the ends together and form a circle with the dough.
  19. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
  20. Cover and allow the dough to rest again until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.
  21. Preheat the oven to 370 degrees F.
  22. While the dough is resting again, make the filling.
  23. Cream together the cream cheese, powdered sugar and milk until smooth.
  24. Place the filling in a piping bag or scoop it into a large ziplock bag and cut off the corner tip of the bag.
  25. Pipe the filling directly on top of the dough.  Only go around the circle once, you may have some filling left over. 

  26. Place the king cake in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the dough is golden brown.
  27. Remove from the oven and make the glaze.
  28. Whisk together 1 cup of the powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of the milk. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the King Cake.
  29. Sprinkle the three colored sugars on top of the King Cake alternating the colors.
  30. Slice and serve.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake - cinnamon and sugar nestled between the layers of sweet dough, with a cream cheese filling, a sugar glaze and topped with colored sugar...

*Recipe adapted from Haydel’s Bakery.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Joanie
    Wow, this looks delicious. I looked at some of your recipes and they ALL look delicious. I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m your newest follower via Pinterest, Twitter and G+. I’m visiting from SITS. I will definitely be visiting you for more recipes, lol.
    Thanks for sharing. Have a wonderful weekend,
    Angel

    • Angel, thank you so much! One of the wonderful things I love about the SITS group is that I’m finding so many blogs I may not have found on my own and yours is one of them too. Thanks for following and I’m doing the same.

  2. Holy wow, this looks perfect! I bet it’s better than a bakery! I grew up in Biloxi/Ocean Springs, and my birthday is pretty close to Mardi Gras. I had blueberry cream cheese filled king cakes for most of my birthday cakes! I miss them and might have to try to make my own. Thanks for the recipe. Pinned!

    • Andi, a birthday so close to Mardi Gras, did you feel like everyone was celebrating with you? That must have been fun! I know Biloxi well. On our last visit home, we visited Biloxi and Gulfport and I was happy to see the city looking so good. It’s great to see all the growth and rebuilding after Katrina. Glad you liked the recipe. Have a great weekend!

  3. I’ve visited New Orleans but never had the famous King Cake. Now, even though I’d love to go back, I can have King Cake without getting on a plane. Your step-by-step instructions are great. Doesn’t look too difficult and the results look amazing. Happy Mardi Gras!

    • You know Laura, I felt the exact same way. Last year was the year that I resolved to attempt the recipes that intimidated me and a King Cake was one of those recipes. It was surprisingly easy to make, time consuming but not difficult at all. I felt that even if it didn’t turn out pretty, it would still taste good. 🙂

  4. I have an irrational fear that baking a traditional king cake won’t live up to the ones we have shipped from Louisiana each year. This recipe totally makes me want to leave my comfort zone of ‘king cake inspired’ creations and finally give it a try!

    • I know what you mean, I felt the same way. I hope you decide to give it a try though. I’ll be making a couple today to take to a SuperBowl party we’re going to.

  5. I have a question for you, being a native of New Orleans. I lived there from 1985-1988 when my dad was stationed there for the Marine Corps. I don’t remember King Cakes being filled with anything other than cinnamon/sugar. Are the other fillings a more recent addition to the King Cake, or am I just not remembering? I’ve been looking at recipes for two days now trying to find an “authentic” recipe that matches what I remember. Other than the filling, this is exactly what I remember! 🙂

    • Hi Brooke, when I was little (back in the 70’s) I don’t remember King Cakes being filled. They were more of a bread dough type with the colored sugar on top. I do remember eating filled King Cakes sometime in the 80’s, when I was in high school. Cream cheese as a filling for King Cakes is very popular as well as jelly filled King Cakes. Personally, cream cheese filled has always been my favorite.

  6. Your king’s cake looks mouth watering and authentic! I am curious if you have ever refrigerated the braided bread overnight for the second rise?

    • Thank you, Shelly. I’ve never refrigerated the braided king cake dough overnight, I usually make the king cake in one day. I have refrigerated other dough such as pizza dough and dough for loaves of bread overnight and had great results.


  7. Like Joanie, I am from New Orleans and live in North Carolina where I can't find anything approaching the perfection of a Haydel's King Cake. I found the original Haydels recipe on line last year and tried it multiple times, encountering the same problem with the filling each time. I was frustrated as I found it almost impossible to braid the pastry with the cream cheese inside the dough. Braiding the pastry was very messy and didn't result in the concentration of cream cheese inside the pastry of a genuine Haydel's king cake.

    I was VERY excited to find Joanie's adaptation with her wonderful photos which do a great job of illustrating the process and the look of the finished product. Joanie's approach of putting the cream cheese filling ON TOP of the pastry also seemed to solve the difficulty I had encountered in braiding the pastry with the original recipe. Unfortunately, after 4 attempts, putting the cream cheese filling on top proves to be a big disappointment. As the cake cooks, the "filling" melts off of the pastry onto the baking pan, creating a caramelized puddle surrounding the cake, leaving no discernible cream cheese on the pastry itself.

    If you want an unfilled King Cake (actually a more authentic version of a King Cake as fillings didn't become common until the late '70s), Joanie's adaptation will give you great results- the right texture, taste and look of the finished product. But if you're looking for a cream cheese filled king cake experience, with the flavor and moistness that cream cheese adds, this recipe doesn't work. For those who might want to use plastic "babies" found in King Cakes in New Orleans, they are available from several vendors on Amazon, although using a pecan as Joanie suggests is actually a very authentic way to represent the "baby" in a king cake.

    • Hi Suzanne,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I'm sorry your King Cake didn't turn out as you had hoped it would. I make King Cakes every year to give to friends and to send to my kids who live in other states and I always have success with mine. I pipe the cream cheese filling directly on top of the braided dough. It has never melted off the King Cake as you have described and I'm puzzled as to why that happened with yours. As shown in the pictures, the cream cheese "bakes" along with the dough. Also, you can see that my King Cake is thick. During the second rise (which takes about an hour or so), the King Cake should double in size. Perhaps that rise didn't happen with yours – when the dough does rise, I have plenty of room to pipe the cream cheese filling so there shouldn't be much or any that would melt off.
      Best,
      Joanie


  8. I love this recipe for King Cake recipe since it remind me of the King Cake's I used used to get from Paul's bakery in Picayune, MS. I make 7 cakes last year using this recipe for friends and family and I am back again to make another batch for this season.


  9. It looked like it rised pretty good, just nervous about how it will taste. The first time I tried this recipe it was delicious. This time I put the filling on the inside, and I use shortening instead of butter. Because the original recipe had shortening. I am keeping my fingers crossed.


  10. And it works perfectly with gluten-free and dairy-free substitutions! I’m in love!!

    I live in south Louisiana where King Cakes are plenty, but I recently eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet for health reasons. Although I have seen such a difference and would never go back, I’ve missed king cakes so much that I decided this year I would attempt to make my own! I found yours when I googled “danish king cake recipes” and decided it looked worth trying. I subbed almond milk for the regular milk, coconut oil for the butter, and used a 1-for-1 flour mix. It turned out delicious! Thanks so much for sharing your recipe!

    Filling: I actually did my king cake like a jelly roll, where I spread the cream cheese & strawberry jam filling on the large piece of dough and then rolled it up before forming the circle. It’s not the braided type you get from some bakeries, but it still works! 🙂

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