Our neighbors (and close friends) in C-bus throw a huge New Year's Eve party every year. Every year has a theme, selected around June. About three years ago, the theme was Mardi Gras. Wendy wanted a King Cake. I didn't know what one way, but I volunteered to make it.
A king cake is not really a cake at all, but rather an enriched bread (meaning sweetened, with eggs and butter), and then you may have a filling in it.
Historically, my understanding is the king cake is only served between the holiday of Epiphany (or 12th Night) and Fat Tuesday. It is shaped in a oval and covered in colored sugar: purple, green and gold. Inside the bread a trinket, traditionally a baby or an almond or bean is inserted. Whoever finds the trinket gets to bring the next king cake or throw the next party.
I'm not going to pretend that I that I'm an expert on the history or culture, because I live in the midwest and we don't really do the whole mardi gras thing.
Since that first one, I average about 6 or 7 each year. Mr. H loves them ("It's like a giant cheese danish!"), and they are a fun and impressive looking. I have tried a variety of fillings, from a plain cinnamon, to praline, and Mr. H's favorite, the cream cheese filling. I have made the cake with white icing and colored sugar, or as shown above with colored icing and colored sugar (I love the brightness of the frosting).
Last night, friends threw a Mardi Gras party in honor of the upcoming Fat Tuesday celebration. I brought a King Cake, and I finally think it was my best baby-hiding job ever. Mr. H couldn't find it after it was decorated. The best thing about being the one to make it is that you never have to worry about getting the baby.
The recipe I most frequently use is based on Emeril's recipe, although any enriched bread dough works just fine.
King Cake with cream cheese filling
First, the dough
2 packages dry active yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted
3 eggs plus 2 yolks
1 cup warm milk 4 to 5 cups regular flour
2 teaspoons salt
A dash of grated nutmeg
Combine the yeast, sugar, and milk. Let proof for 15 to 30 minutes. Add butter, and egg yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, and mix until combined. In a separate large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, and nutmeg. Add this mixture an batches to the yeast mixture.
Mix on low speed until it lightly comes together, then 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. Dough will be smooth but loose - it's not as firm as some other doughs, and it may be just a bit sticky. Coat the dough with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, set in a warm, draft-free place, and let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Next, make the filling
16 oz cream cheese (two packs, although I usually use about 1 and half pack), softened
1 cup powdered sugar
Splash vanilla extract
Splash almond extract
Now, fill the dough...
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Roll the dough out to about 30 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. Spread the cream cheese filling across the center of the dough. Bring the two long edges together and seal all sides completely. Using your hands shape the dough into a long cylinder and place on a greased baking sheet, seam side down. Shape the dough into a ring. You can put an empty can covered in aluminum foil and well greased the center of the ring to keep the definition and shape of the cake.
Let the dough rise again - about 45 minutes, until doubled.
Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes. It will be golden brown. Let cool.
Once cooled, you can frost the cake. I like to use a powdered sugar glaze that has been flavored with a little rum and cream.