In New Orleans, king cake season officially begins on January 6th, the Epiphany, and is kicked off with a Twelfth Night Party. These gatherings always feature the signature ring-shaped, sugar-coated (and sometimes filled) yeast bread—and they continue through Mardi Gras, which marks the last day of excess before Lent. Tradition dictates that you hide a small plastic baby, representing the baby Jesus, in the cake after it’s baked and before slathering on the icing. The partygoer who gets the lucky slice is then crowned royalty for the occasion—and must provide the king cake for the next party. Look for miniature plastic babies in your local craft store (the baby shower aisle is usually a good bet), or order a plastic king cake baby online.
For the Dough
- 1 (1/4-oz.) package active dry yeast
- 1⁄4 cup sugar
- 1⁄2 cup whole milk
- 2 Tbsp. light brown sugar
- 1⁄2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 3⁄4 cups all purpose flour
- 3⁄4 tsp. kosher salt
- 8 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
For the Filling and Garnish
- 2 8oz packages cream cheese
- 1⁄2 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1⁄2 cup chopped pecans
- 2 Tbsp. cane syrup (or substitute maple)
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1⁄2 lemon, zested
- Buttermilk Glaze
- Green, purple, and yellow sanding sugars
Make the dough: In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a hook, combine yeast, 1⁄2 tsp. of the sugar, and 1⁄4 cup water heated to 115°. Stir to combine and let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add remaining sugar, milk, light brown sugar, vanilla, egg, and egg yolk. Beat on low speed until thoroughly combined, 1 minute. Turn mixer off and add flour and salt. Mix on medium speed until the dough just comes together. Turn mixer speed to high and knead dough for 4 minutes. Add the butter and continue kneading until dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, about 6 minutes. Remove bowl from mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until doubled in size, 1 1⁄2–2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Combine cream cheese, brown sugar, pecans, maple syrup, cinnamon, salt, and zest in a large bowl and beat on medium speed of a hand mixer until combined; set aside.
Punch down dough and turn it out onto a heavily floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a large circle, about 1⁄4"-thick. Cut a hole in the center of the circle and pull with your fingers to widen. Place dollops of filling evenly around circle halfway between outer edge and inner hole. Drape outside edges over filling and continue rolling outside inward until filling is covered, widening inner hole as needed, until dough covers the seam. Transfer rolled dough circle to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet; cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour. Heat oven to 350°. Uncover cake and bake until golden brown, about 34-40 minutes. Let cool completely.
Transfer king cake to a cutting board or serving platter; spread Buttermilk Glaze evenly over top of cake and sprinkle evenly with sanding sugars.