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.

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

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 + 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

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

  • 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.

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