Make a king cake to prepare for Mardi Gras

A king cake, from chef Dominick Lee, in New York. More than a dessert, the colorful cake imparts the flavor of the New Orleans. / Photo by Beatriz Da Costa/The New York Times
A king cake, from chef Dominick Lee, in New York. More than a dessert, the colorful cake imparts the flavor of the New Orleans. / Photo by Beatriz Da Costa/The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS - When Dominick Lee was in elementary school in the 1990s, every year for Twelfth Night, the teacher would bring a king cake for the class to share. He and his classmates would wait for their slices - decorated with purple, gold and green sugars - eager to see which piece had a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Whoever found it was responsible for bringing another king cake to school the next week, and the cycle would continue through Carnival season, right up until Mardi Gras.

"It was a really wonderful childhood memory, and it's stuck with me to this day," said Lee, a chef born and raised in New Orleans.

Nearly every New Orleanian has a similar story. King cake is a treasured sweet and a beloved Carnival tradition.

And in New Orleans, where Catholicism is still the predominant religion, Twelfth Night, celebrated here on Jan. 6, holds deep significance. The date - also known around the world as Epiphany or Three Kings Day - marks the moment when the three Magi, or kings, reached the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Celebrations vary, but in New Orleans, Twelfth Night is also the start of the pre-Lenten Carnival season, a cycle of baking and eating king cakes, with the arrival of many plastic babies.

Poppy Tooker, an author in New Orleans, said king cake dates to ancient Rome and the Saturnalia Festival, a celebration of the god Saturn.

"The tradition goes, they bake the bean into the cake, which really makes it sound like a king cake," Tooker said. "When Rome collapsed, like so much in the Catholic Church in Europe, they took these pagan customs and adapted them."

King cakes are revered in New Orleans, so much so that it's considered sacrilegious to eat one before Jan. 6. Until the 18th century, king cake was largely eaten only on that day, to signal the end of the Christmas season. In the early 1900s however, some Carnival krewes (as parade organizers are known) like the Twelfth Night Revelers began to host balls, where they served king cake, selecting the "king" or "queen" based on which guest found the small trinket, or fève, hidden in the cake.

The New Orleans version of the cake, which Tooker said was most likely developed by 18th-century French and Spanish colonists, initially followed a basic structure: The oval-shaped pastries consisted of a brioche dough with hints of vanilla, and were covered with colorful sugary crystals and stuffed with the fève, initially a bean. In the 19th century, porcelain dolls were the fève of choice; in the 20th century, McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, a local chain that closed in 2001, became among the first commercial bakeries to use a plastic baby, and others soon followed. Cakes also became sweeter and more Danish-like as king cakes became commercially popular.

"It is the emblematic dessert of the time," food historian Lolis Eric Elie said.

Caramelized Apple King Cake

Though there are many versions of king cake - the pastry eaten from Twelfth Night through Mardi Gras - many New Orleanians trace their best memories back to their local bakery. Such is the case for Creole chef and New Orleans native Dominick Lee. His recipe was inspired by childhood memories of king cakes with apple filling served in the city's Gentilly neighborhood. Lee retains that filling in his cake and takes inspiration from global influences, adding a fragrant orange blossom cream-cheese frosting. True to tradition, a plastic baby is baked inside the dough. The person who finds and eats the slice with the baby is promised luck and prosperity, and - fair warning - is also responsible for providing the next cake.

Yield: 12 to 16 servings

Total time: 6 hours

For the filling:

3 medium Granny Smith apples (3/4 pound), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1/2 packed cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

For the dough:

1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2 teaspoons)

1/4 cup warm water

3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the bowl

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

1 cup sour cream

1 large egg

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

Egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water), for brushing the dough

1 plastic baby, for decorating

For the frosting:

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water

3 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons whole milk or heavy cream

Purple, gold and green sparkling sugar or edible glitter sprinkles, for decorating

Make the filling: Place the apples, brown sugar, flour, butter, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan, and stir well. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until the apples are completely softened but still retain their shape, about 25 minutes. Watch carefully near the end and stir as the mixture will begin to stick to the pan as it caramelizes. Set aside.

While the apples cook, prepare the dough: In a small bowl, mix yeast, warm water and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar. Set aside to allow yeast to become active and foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.

In a medium saucepan, combine butter with salt and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and melt over medium-low heat, about 4 minutes. Whisk in sour cream until incorporated. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly, 5 to 7 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter mixture, yeast mixture, 1 egg and 1 1/2 cups flour. Beat on medium-low speed until smooth. Gradually add remaining 1 1/2 cups flour, and continue to mix until a dough forms.

On a floured work surface, knead the dough by hand, adding more flour if needed, until the dough is elastic and smooth, 5 to 12 minutes. It should be sticky but not sticking to the surface. Butter a large bowl, and place dough inside. Cover and let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Gently punch down the dough, transfer it to a floured work surface, and roll it out into a 24- by 12-inch rectangle. Be gentle so as to not tear the dough. Spread the apple filling on one long side of the dough to cover half of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border along the edges. Starting with the long side closest to you, fold the border over the filling, and tightly roll up the dough in a spiral, enclosing the apple filling as you go. Carefully transfer the roll seam side down to a large parchment-paper-covered baking sheet. Moisten ends with water, then bring both ends together to form a ring. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. While the dough rises, heat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the egg wash all over the cake. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 2 hours before frosting.

While cake cools, make the frosting: In a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and orange blossom water. Mix slowly by hand or with a hand or stand mixer until well combined, then gradually add the powdered sugar, and mix until incorporated. Continue mixing while slowly adding the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, to thin out the frosting. The frosting should be thin enough to spread, but not too runny.

Carefully flip the cooled cake and cut a small X in the bottom of the ring. Insert the plastic baby, and flip the cake back over. Frost the cake and decorate with alternating stripes of gold, green and purple sprinkles.

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