If you’ve never had a king cake, you’re in for a surprise—literally. I was a king cake novice until about a week ago when a coworker showed me a picture of one that he had made last year for Mardi Gras. It looked strange to say the least, but I don’t say no to cake!
For other king cake newbies out there, here’s some background info: the cake is made in many countries to celebrate Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day. I don’t know much about religion so I can’t discuss the tradition, but from what I’ve read on the good ol’ internet the cake is made to represent the biblical kings visiting the baby Jesus. Many people hide a small surprise inside the cake, usually a tiny plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the hidden surprise is king (or queen) for the day. In many traditions, that person is then tasked with providing the king cake for next year’s party.
This sounded too fun, so I had to give it a try. After a little more research, I realized that there are two kinds of king cake: a French galette des rois and a Louisiana king cake. The former, a flaky pastry, is made to celebrate the festival of Epiphany in early January. The latter, a brightly-colored yeast cake, is served during Carnival and for Mardi Gras (which is Tuesday!), after the feasts of Epiphany. You probably recognize the New Orleans king cake, or you thought it was a giant donut — that was my original impression, though I’m sure it tastes delicious. For my first king cake, I wanted something that required less decorating and was less likely to stain my coworkers’ teeth for the day, so I decided to make the French version.
I found a recipe on David Lebovitz’s excellent blog. Since he’s a former pastry chef, I knew his version would be a winner. Plus, I had just been leafing through My Paris Kitchen, his most recent cookbook, and I had gotten so caught up in all his stories about friends, food and France that this seemed like a sign. His recipe for galette des rois looked simple – I’m not an all-star baker, but it couldn’t be that hard, right?
Luckily, the taste testers here at SLT HQ (or test dummies, as the case may be) are pretty forgiving. They will tell you the cake looks awesome and tastes good with a smile on their face and a cheek full of pastry dough – but I can’t promise the same of your friends. Here’s how my baking experiment went:
My favorite part about this recipe is the puff pastry. I’ve never been very good at reinventing the wheel, and I’m not about to start now. While some may call this lazy, I call it smart. I read in My Paris Kitchen that people don’t bake in France, and for good reason – with French bakeries lining every street, there’s no need for baking at home. But if they did bake at home, I bet they would use puff pastry!
I searched high and low for a small plastic baby but was unsuccessful. Luckily, an almond works just as well! Try to forget where you hid the almond, or you will be bummed when it comes time to slice the cake!
A simple, decorative edge will give your cake that professional touch. And remind you of those play-dough pies you made in kindergarten.
People around here know I am a planner, but I did not plan well for this one. Had I read all the way through the recipe beforehand (like a good baker always does) I would have expected this little explosion of melted butter, but then what fun would that be? Thankfully they invented parchment paper for this very reason. I lost about 25% of my cake’s filling, but it still tasted great. Don’t worry too much if this happens to your king cake!
It was gorgeous … before it deflated. But we ate it so fast that no one could really tell!
I’m sure some of you true bakers out there will have no problem with this cake. While my king cake didn’t turn out perfect, it was fun to make and even more fun to slice and serve. It’s always good to be king (or queen) for a day.