Tuesday, March 8, 2011

King Cake, and Other Legal Celebrations of Mardi Gras

Did I ever tell you about that time I lifted my shirt on Bourbon Street for a string of beads?  No?  Okay, then as far as you're concerned, it never happened.

Fat Tuesday is upon us once again.  For some, this means drunken revelry in the French Quarter or elsewhere.  For others, it's a day of low key indulgence in anticipation of the austere days of lent.  In my house, Mardi Gras means king cake.  Part breakfast, part dessert, all delicious--king cake is the traditional baked good for the celebration of the Mardi Gras season.  For a fun history of the king cake, check out NewOrleans.com.  For a fun do-it-yourself version of king cake, keep reading...

I think the key to a great king cake is in the dough.  I've made entirely passable variations with frozen bread dough.  I've made amazing king cakes with a scratch-made sweet dough.  This year, I tired a new recipe: Alton Brown's Refrigerator Cinnamon Rolls.  It's a nice enriched dough that makes enough for one large or two small king cakes. 

Truly, though, if you aren't the bread-making type, frozen dough is perfectly fine.

A traditional New Orleans king cake is filled with cinnamon sugar, like cinnamon rolls that didn't make the final cut.  Get it?  Cut?  Slice?  Sigh.  Anyway.  These days, you can find king cakes filled with fruit, chocolate, cream cheese, nuts, you name it.  In the spirit of trying new things, I whipped up a pralines-and-cream concoction that turned out even better than I'd expected:

4 ounces cream cheese
1 ounce butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
2 cups toasted pecans

Beat the cream cheese, butter, and brown sugar until well combined.  Add the salt, vanilla, and egg and whip some more.  Set aside. 

Roll whatever dough you're using into a 12x24-inch rectangle.  Spread the filling over the dough, leaving an inch or so around the edges.  Sprinkle pecans evenly over. 

For one large king cake, roll the dough into a giant log.  Brush the long edge with a little water and pinch the seam closed.  For two smaller cakes, cut the dough lengthwise and make two skinnier rolls.  Carefully transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, seam side down.  Shape into a ring, tucking one end into the other. 

Allow to rise for one hour at room temperature or for a half hour in the oven with a pan of boiling water.  Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes.

While the king cake cools, make the glaze:

4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 pound confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons of milk, to achieve a consistency that is thinner than frosting, but thick enough to spread

Spread glaze over cake.  Sprinkle with green, purple, and gold sanding sugar.  If you don't have sanding sugar, you can color regular granulated sugar with a few drops of food coloring.  Place in a container with a tight fitting lid and shake it (like a Polaroid picture).

Literate Baker note:  If you have a little plastic baby to put in your king cake, I suggest doing it after the cake is cool, but before you apply the glaze.  You can purchase a little bag o' babies at your local craft store (really).  I used to bake mine right inside, but given all the recent concern about plastic and the chemicals it can leach into food when hot, I stopped.  Just lift the king cake and stuff the baby in from the bottom.  It works just as well.

Slice it up and you have a party.  Sure, it's not as fun as a gallon of daiquiris, but you won't regret it quite so much the next day.  Of course, if you do go the gallon of daiquiris route, this is great the next day with a cup of coffee.  Either way, laissez les bon temps rouler and...

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