King Cake Recipe

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 a colorful topping.

A whole king cake topped with white icing and purple, green, and yellow sanding sugar

King cakes and Mardi Gras go hand in hand - you just don't have one without the other.

I grew up in New Orleans and around this time every year, I get an intense longing to go back. There's not bigger party than Mardi Gras!

If you've never celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you simply must put it on your travel bucket list. There's just no other party like it anywhere.

If you aren't planning a trip any time soon, be sure to put this festive king cake on your menu so that you can bring a part of the celebration into your own home.

Ingredient Notes

See recipe box below for ingredient amounts and full recipe instructions.

  • Granulated Sugar: You will use granulated sugar for the dough, glaze, and sugar topping.
  • Butter: Use salted butter, melted.
  • Eggs: Use 2 large eggs.
  • Milk: Adds moisture to the cake. Use any percentage of cow's milk, almond milk, or soy milk.
  • Active Dry Yeast: I recommend using active dry yeast which is yeast that has been dried and given an inactive coating. This yeast must be dissolved in water before mixed with the flour. Make sure your yeast is fresh for best results.
  • Vanilla Extract: Adds flavor.
  • Orange and Lemon Zest: These ingredients add a wonderful flavor to the king cake.
  • Flour: Use all-purpose flour. I have not tested this recipe with any other type of flour.
  • Cinnamon and Salt: For flavor.
  • Cream Cheese: For cream cheese filling.
  • Confectioners' Sugar (Powdered Sugar): For the glaze and cream cheese filling.
  • Food Coloring: For the colored sugar, use purple, green, and yellow food coloring. These are the colors of Mardi Gras.
A close up of a king cake drizzled with white icing and topped with purple, green, and yellow sanding sugar

My Favorite King Cake Needs Four Things:

  1. It should resemble a delicate danish pastry.
  2. The tender dough should be slightly sweet with a hint of citrus.
  3. A King Cake is best when it's filled and a cream cheese filling is a personal favorite of mine.
  4. 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 slice taken out of a King Cake that is drizzled with white icing and topped with purple, green, and yellow sanding sugar

How To Make A King Cake

First, make the dough using a stand mixer.

Step 1

Blend the sugar, salt, and melted butter together in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook.

Add in flour, eggs, and yeast which is dissolved in milk. Then add vanilla, orange zest, and lemon zest to the mixing bowl

Dough rolled out on a large cutting board

Step 2

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.

Cinnamon sugar sprinkled over the rolled out dough

Step 3

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 the picture, the dough extends over my large cutting board.

Folding the dough in half

Step 4

Cut the dough into 3 strips.

*(Also see notes below - updated February 2017)

Cutting the folded dough into three strips

Step 5

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.

Braiding the dough
Braiding the dough
The braided dough shaped into a circle and placed on parchment paper

Step 6

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

Letting the dough rest

Step 7

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.

Piping the cream cheese filling on top of the King Cake Dough
Piping the cream cheese filling on top of the King Cake Dough
Closeup of cream cheese filling on top of the King Cake dough

Step 8

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.

King cake with cream cheese filling just out of the oven

Drizzle the glaze over the top.

Drizzling white glaze over the top of the King Cake

Step 9

Top with the colored sugar.

Topping King Cake with yellow, green, and purple sanding sugar
Closeup of King Cake topped with white glaze and yellow, green, and purple sanding sugar

Step 10

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.

A slice of King Cake that is topped with white glaze and purple sanding sugar

Notes:  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.

Rolling the three strips of dough topped with cinnamon sugar
Rolling the three strips of dough topped with cinnamon sugar
Braiding the three strips of dough

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a King Cake?

A King Cake is a round cake associated with Mardi Gras and is rich in history and rooted in tradition. 
King Cakes are typically enjoyed during the Carnival season.
Originally, King Cakes were more similar to bread dough and they weren't nearly as sweet as they are today. 
In the 1980's bakers began to fill the King Cakes with fillings such as cream cheese, fruit fillings and pastry fillings. But many people still enjoy the traditional unfilled King Cake which is always topped with purple, green, and gold or yellow colored sugar.

When Does Mardi Gras Season Begin?

The Mardi Gras season officially begins on on January 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany and also known as Twelfth Night.

What is a King Cake Baby?

Traditionally, a little plastic baby is inserted into the king cake and the person who receives the slice with the baby should bring the king cake to the next gathering.
I haven't been able to purchase one or two plastic babies, I can only order them in large quantities so I use a large pecan instead or I will not use anything.

What Do the Mardi Gras Colors Mean?

The color purple symbolizes justice, green symbolizes faith, and gold means peace.

If you're looking for a mini Mardi Gras King Cake, you can find that recipe as well as many other single serving recipes by visiting our One Dish Kitchen site.

A traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe from ZagLeft

Traditional Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe

Celebrate Mardi Gras with this traditional Mardi Gras King Cake recipe! Features cinnamon and sugar nestled between layers of sweet dough, a cream cheese filling, and a colorful topping.
4.43 from 7 votes
Print Pin
Prep Time: 3 hours
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: Dessert
Servings: 10 servings
Author: Joanie Zisk



  • 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


  • 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.

The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.

Three pictures placed vertically. Top picture- a slice of King Cake topped with purple sanding sugar. Middle picture- piping cream cheese filling on top of the King Cake dough. Bottom picture- King Cake topped with white glaze and purple, green, and yellow sanding sugar

*Recipe adapted from Haydel's Bakery.

If you’ve come to ZagLeft looking for single serving recipes, please visit our One Dish Kitchen site.

king cake

About The Author

38 thoughts on “King Cake Recipe”

  1. Making the Kings Cake right now! Such a great recipe! How do you get your purple sugar so purple? Mine turned out slightly gray! Glad I found this recipe’

    1. There is approximately 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast in each packet, so the total amount needed is 4 1/2 teaspoons.

  2. 5 stars
    Loved your recipe and your step by step photo instructions! I made this last night for an office meeting today and it was a huge hit! I’ve been intrigued in the steps and making sure the flavor was just right as I have had my share directly from NOLA. Thank you so much for sharing! I followed it step by step, down to the updated braiding technique you added. Heck of a process so anyone who gets one from me now better know it’s a labor of love to make!

  3. 5 stars
    Hi, thank you for the recipe! I have changed a few things and actually was able to put the cream cheese on the inside and it is amazing!

  4. 5 stars
    Literally….god bless you for sharing this recipe. 😂 my very pregnant self moved to Florida and can’t find king cake anywhere. This recipe is PERFECT! Thank you!!

  5. 5 stars
    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! 🙂

  6. 4 stars
    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.

  7. 5 stars
    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.

  8. 2 stars
    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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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?

    1. 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.

  10. 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! 🙂

    1. 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.

  11. Kimberly Ann @ Bake Love Give

    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!

    1. 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.

  12. I am totally intimidated by King Cake and I think you did an amazing job! Every year I think I am going to try and every year I chicken out lol!

    1. 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. 🙂

  13. Karen @ Karen's Kitchen Stories

    I’m so glad to have a recipe that is endorsed by someone who should know that it is authentic!! I’m definitely giving it a try.

    1. I hope you do get to try it Karen. Growing up we had King Cakes throughout the entire Mardi Gras season, it’s such a fun dessert tradition.

  14. Laura @MotherWouldKnow

    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!

  15. Andi @ The Weary Chef

    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!

    1. 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!

  16. 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,

    1. 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.

  17. This looks amazing! I’ve seen and had King’s Cake in French class, but it could hardly compare to this! I love all the color!

        1. Hi Michelle,
          Your King Cake will be fine in a cool spot in your kitchen for a day. If you plan on serving it later, keep it in the refrigerator.

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