Celebrate Mardi Gras with this traditional Mardi Gras King Cake recipe! This is the recipe I’ve used for years and features cinnamon and sugar nestled between layers of sweet dough, a cream cheese filling and colorful topping.
It’s Mardi Gras season in New Orleans! The Mardi Gras season begins on Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrated on January 6 that is otherwise known as Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. So “Let the good times roll” by making this wonderful and festive King Cake.
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 decadent cream cheese filled King Cake.
On many different occasions, I’ve written of how much I have loved growing up and living in New Orleans. There isn’t a place in the world quite like the “Crescent City” and during Mardi Gras is perhaps the most exciting time of all to visit.
The Mardi Gras festivities are well underway with grand Mardi Gras Balls at night, parades with marching bands and floats rolling down the tree lined streets, 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.
Since moving to Texas, I had been searching for a King Cake that tastes as good as they make them in New Orleans. I’ve come to the realization that if I want a traditional King Cake, I have to make it myself.
My favorite King Cake needs four things:
- It should resemble a delicate danish pastry.
- The tender dough should be slightly sweet with a hint of citrus.
- A King Cake is best when it’s filled and a cream cheese filling is a personal favorite of mine.
- 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.
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.
King Cake Recipe
First, make the dough using a stand mixer.
Blend the sugar, salt, and melted butter together.
Add in the flour, eggs, and the yeast which is dissolved in milk. Haydel’s recipe calls for butter, orange and lemon flavoring, but I like to add fresh orange and lemon zest instead.
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 the dough out of the bowl, place it on a large surface and knead the dough for about 10 minutes.
Roll the dough out into an oblong shape, brush the dough with canola oil and sprinkle the entire top with a mixture of cinnamon and 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.
Cut the dough into 3 strips.
*(Also see notes below – updated February 2017)
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.
Cover and let the dough rest again for about an hour until it has almost doubled in size.
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. Instead, 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.
Bake the King Cake in a 370 degree F oven for about 15 minutes.
Remove the cake from the oven and prepare a sweet glaze made of sifted powdered sugar and milk.
Drizzle the glaze over the top.
Top with the colored sugar.
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.
Notes (updated 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.
Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe
- 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 + 2 tablespoons 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
- 1 cup powdered sugar , sifted
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- a few drops of each: purple, green, and yellow food coloring
- In an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 1/3 cup granulated sugar, salt and melted butter until well creamed.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition and continue to cream.
- Pour the milk into a small bowl and add the packets of yeast. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes until dissolved. Set aside.
- Add in the vanilla, orange zest and lemon zest to the mixing bowl and blend.
- Pour in the the milk and dissolved yeast and blend.
- 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.
- Remove the dough from the bowl. Coat the dough with 1/2 cup of 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.
- 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.
- After the dough has rested, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough for 10 minutes.
- Roll the dough out into an oblong piece.
- Brush the dough with canola oil covering the entire piece.
- 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.
- Once the dough is covered with the cinnamon sugar and oil, fold it in half lengthwise.
- Cut the dough into 3 long strips and lay the strips side-by-side. Press the edges to seal. Now it's time to braid the dough.
- (Braiding dough is just like braiding hair)
- Grab the center of the right strand and cross it over the middle strand, drop it in the center.
- Grab your left strand and cross it over the middle strand.
- Repeat these steps until you have braided your dough to the very end. Pinch the ends together and form a circle with the dough.
- Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
- Cover and allow the dough to rest again until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 370 degrees F.
- While the dough is resting again, make the filling.
- Cream together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and lemon zest until smooth.
- Place the filling in a piping bag or scoop it into a large ziplock bag and cut off the corner tip of the bag.
- Pipe the filling directly on top of the dough. Only go around the circle once, you may have some filling left over.
- Place the king cake in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the dough is golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and make the glaze.
- Whisk together 1 cup of the powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of the milk. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the King Cake.
- Sprinkle the three colored sugars on top of the King Cake alternating the colors.
- Slice and serve.
*Recipe adapted from Haydel’s Bakery.
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