King Cake

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Celebrate Mardi Gras with a homemade King Cake filled with cinnamon and sugar. If you can’t make it to New Orleans, bring it to you with this step-by-step guide to making this colorful, classic celebration cake – baby and all!

Photography Credit: Irvin Lin

Mardi Gras is intricately associated with New Orleans and nothing says Mardi Gras and like a King Cake!

This cake is actually a sweet, yeasted bread decorated with the purple, green, and gold colors of Mardi Gras. It’s traditional to kick off the season of Carnival with King Cake, which has a long, storied history that takes us all the way from France to NOLA.

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WHAT IS A KING CAKE?

The traditional New Orleans-style King Cake is an enriched yeasted bread, similar to brioche, that is often rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then baked, glazed, and dusted with colored sugar.

The colored sugars are gold, green and purple, which are the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. Gold represents power, green stands for faith, and purple is justice.

Though the traditional filling is a cinnamon sugar or cream cheese filling, King Cakes come in numerous variations and can be filled with anything from strawberry jam, praline, chocolate, coconut, or even fancier versions made with goat cheese and pears.

I stuck with a more traditional cinnamon sugar for this version, though I did bring it up a notch by slicing the rolled bread in half and then twisting the sliced roll together to give the cake a sophisticated look.

Top view of the best king cake on a white platter. Mardi Gras beads, a sifter of powdered sugar and a stack of plates and forks are to the left.

KING CAKE HISTORY

The King Cake is thought to have started in France, where the original King Cake was named after the three kings of the Bible that visited the baby Jesus on the 12th night of Christmas, January 6th.

In France, the cake is made of puff pastry and frangipane (almond cream). It’s still an incredibly popular dessert there, served throughout the month of January, closely associated with the religious feast of the Epiphany. A local bakery in France can sell up to 1,500 cakes in the month of January alone!

By the time the tradition came to New Orleans from French immigrants in the 18th century, it had morphed into an enriched brioche bread cake.

Bakeries in New Orleans started selling them for Carnival season, which began at the end of January 6th and went through Ash Wednesday (six weeks before Easter and the beginning of Lent). By the 20th century the tradition took off and king cakes were all over New Orleans.

Side view of a homemade king cake on a white platter with a small plastic baby figurine in the bottom right hand corner.

WHY IS THERE A BABY IN THE CAKE?

All king cakes have a baby or toy figurine hidden in the cake, though that baby can actually be a toy baby, or a more conceptual “baby” like a dry bean or pecan.

Tradition holds that the person who gets the slice with the baby is the “king” or “queen” for the day, and is also responsible for bringing the next King Cake or host the next King Cake party.

Of course, when serving the cake, be sure to warn all folks who are not familiar with the tradition that there might be a baby figurine, dry bean, or pecan in their slice and what the significance of it is! You don’t want unsuspecting folks choking or cracking a tooth.

HOW DO YOU MAKE A KING CAKE?

Making a king cake can seem daunting at first, but it’s a straightforward recipe.

The enriched bread dough starts by combining warmed milk, honey, and yeast. The yeasty liquid is mixed with melted butter and eggs along with a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and extracts like vanilla or almond. Then the liquid is mixed with flour and kneaded until a dough is formed.

The dough is left to rise, then rolled out into a rectangle. A cinnamon sugar butter mixture is spread out, and the dough is rolled into a really long log that is sliced in half lengthwise. The two long pieces are then twisted together and then shaped to form a ring. The ring is left to rise again and then baked.

Once baked and cooled, the baby is tucked away into the cake somewhere, and the cake is glazed with a simple powdered sugar milk glaze and then sprinkled with colored sugar.

Horizontal view of a slice of homemade king cake with a small baby figurine on the plate. Mardi Gras beads and a partial view of the rest of the cake are in the background.

HOW DO YOU STORE A KING CAKE?

A king cake is best left at room temperature for up to 3 days under a cake dome or in an airtight container.

HOW TO FREEZE A KING CAKE?

King cake freezes really well, but it’s recommended that you freeze it before you frost it! Just let the cake cool completely to room temperature, double wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and then wrap it again with aluminum foil or place it in a large two-gallon zip-top bag.

When well-wrapped, the king cake will keep for up to three months in the freezer. Thaw the cake on the countertop overnight, then frost and serve.

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King Cake Recipe

  • Prep time: 45 minutes
  • Cook time: 25 minutes
  • Rest/Rise time: 2 hours
  • Yield: 12 servings

This cake is made from an enriched yeasted dough, rolled with a cinnamon sugar filling, then twisted and formed into a ring. The resulting cake, decorated with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of yellow, green, and purple, is a sophisticated coffee cake that is well worth the effort.

You can find colored sugars in the baking section of the grocery store and the plastic baby toy can be found online or at party supply stores like Party City.

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 1/2 cup milk, any fat percentage
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (7 g or 1 package) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup (115 g or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 3 to 3 1/4 cups (420 to 455 g) all-purpose flour

For the filling:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2/3 cup (145 g) packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

For the egg wash:

  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the glaze and color sugar coating:

  • 1 1/2 cups (175 g) powdered sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoon milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Purple, green and yellow colored sugar
  • 1 tiny toy baby

Method

1 Warm the milk and bloom the yeast: In a small saucepan set over medium-low heat add the milk and honey and stir constantly until the milk is warm and the honey has dissolved. Remove the milk from heat.

When it’s warm to the touch but not hot (about 100°F), sprinkle the yeast over the milk and stir. Set aside for 5 minutes until small bubbles start to form. If bubbles do not form, discard and start over with new yeast.

A fork is stirring dry yeast and milk in a saucepan.

2 Melt the butter: In a small microwave-safe bowl add the cubed butter. Cover the bowl and microwave the butter for 30 to 45 seconds, or until the butter is mostly melted. Some solid chunks are ok.

Cubed butter in a small glass dish and sitting on a wooden table. Partially melten butter in a glass bowl on a wooden table.

3 Prepare the dough: Into a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer add the milk mixture and butter, making sure to scrape into the bowl any solid parts or yeast residue. Add the eggs, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and almond extract (if using).

Beat together with a whisk until blended, about 5 to 10 seconds on medium speed if using the mixer whisk attachment, or by hand. You just want to bring it together a bit.

Melted butter, milk, yeast and spices are in a large bowl on a wooden table to make the best king cake. A whisk is mixing ingredients in a metal bowl for a homemade king cake.

4 Add the flour and knead the dough: Switch the attachment on your stand mixer to the dough hook. Add 3 cups flour and set the stand mixer to low until the flour has absorbed into the liquid.

Increase the speed to medium and mix until a rough dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Knead the dough with the hook for 5 minutes until a smooth supple dough forms. The dough will be fairly soft, and a little tacky but not sticky.

(If you don’t have a stand mixer, stir the flour into the liquid with a wooden spoon until a rough dough forms. Then dust your hands and a clean surface lightly with flour and knead the dough by hand for 10 minutes.)

If the dough seems too wet as you knead it, add a little more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. The dough should be pliable and not so sticky that you can’t handle it.

A dough hook rests in a metal bowl with the dough for a homemade king cake. A hand is kneading king cake dough on a marble background.

5 Let the dough rest: Lightly grease a bowl so the dough doesn’t stick. Stretch and form the dough into a smooth ball. Place the ball in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

Dough for homemade king cake is resting in a large glass bowl and covered with plastic wrap. A risen king cake dough in a glass bowl on a wooden table.

6 Make the filling: About 10 minutes before the dough has finished rising, make the filling. In a medium microwave-safe bowl add the butter and cover the bowl. Set the microwave for 30-45 seconds. You want the butter melted completely.

Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to the melted butter. Stir until a thick paste forms. Cover and set aside until you’re ready to use.

A glass bowl has spices, melted butter and brown sugar in it for a homemade king cake filling. A fork is in a glass bowl with mixed king cake filling.

7 Fill and roll the dough: Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking pad.

Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a clean work surface. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a large rectangle, about 10-inches by 24-inches wide. The dough will be pretty thin, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.

Using a small offset spatula, butter knife, or silicon spatula, spread a thin layer of cinnamon sugar filling over the dough, leaving 1 inch at the top of the rectangle bare (the long side).

At first, it won’t seem like there is enough filling but keep spreading, scraping up any thicker areas. Eventually, you’ll be able to get a thin coating of the filling all over the dough. That’s what you want.

Starting at the long side, roll the dough up to form a long, thin log. Pat and press the 1-inch bare dough border at the top to the log, making sure it seals. Turn the log so the seal is at the bottom.

Easy king cake dough is rolled into a large rectangle. A rolling pin is resting on top. An offset spatula is spreading king cake filling on the dough. Overhead view of an offset spatula spreading king cake filling over the entire rectangle of dough. How to make a King Cake by rolling the dough up with the filling spread inside. The best King Cake dough is rolled into a tube shape with a hand resting on top. The dough rests on a marble background.

8 Cut and twist the dough: Using a sharp knife, cut the log lengthwise, splitting the log in half.

Twist the two halves together, making sure the cut “strip” side is facing upward.

Move the twisted rope to the prepared baking sheet and form a ring. Tuck the ends of the dough under each other to help seal the ring together.

A knife is slicing the tube of King Cake dough down the middle. The halved homemade King Cake dough is being twisted on a marble background. The best King Cake dough is shaped into a circle on a baking sheet. The twisted, circular King Cake dough is on a baking sheet. A hand is tucking the ends under to hide them.

9 Give the dough a second rise: Cover the ring with plastic wrap and leave it in a warm place to rise until puffy and almost double in size, about 45 to 60 minutes.

The shaped King Cake dough is covered in plastic wrap and sitting on a baking sheet. Homemade King Cake dough has risen and sitting on a baking sheet.

10 Preheat the oven: About 30 minutes into the second rise time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

11 Make the egg wash and bake the cake: Once the ring has risen, beat the egg yolk together with the water and gently brush it over the ring.

Bake in the oven 25 to 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. If you have an instant-read thermometer, it should be done at 195°F to 200°F. Don’t worry if some of the filling has oozed out while baking, that’s totally normal.

The risen King Cake dough is being brushed with melted butter with a pastry brush. Easy King Cake golden brown and cooling on a silpat.

12 Cool the cake and add the baby: Let the cake cool on the baking pan for 10 minutes, then loosen the bread from the pan with a spatula. Then carefully move the cake to a wire rack, using two spatulas, and let cool completely to room temperature.

Once the cake has cooled, insert the baby into the cake (I usually push it in on the bottom so no one can tell where it is).

The easy King Cake is transferred to a cooling wrack by two spatulas.

13 Make the glaze: To make the glaze, sift powdered sugar into a medium-sized bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of milk and the vanilla. Stir until the ingredients are fully incorporated and a glaze forms.

The glaze should be thick and opaque but still pourable. If the glaze is too thick, add more milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, until the desired thickness has formed.

Powdered sugar in a sifter is being pressed with a spoon. A tablespoon of milk is being added to the bowl of sifted powdered sugar. A fork is mixing the icing ingredients for the best King Cake.

14 Finish and serve the cake: Place the wire baking rack with the cooled cake over a rimmed baking sheet.

Spoon the glaze all over the cake making sure the top is completely covered. Then immediately sprinkle the colored sugar over the cake. The wet glaze will allow the sugar to adhere to the cake. Let the glaze and sugar dry, then move the cake to a serving platter.

A spoon is drizzling icing on a homemade, golden brown King Cake resting on a cooling rack. Homemade King Cake on a cooling rack getting topped with purple sprinkles. Yellow, green and purple sprinkles are already on the cake.

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Irvin Lin

Irvin Lin is an IACP award-winning photographer, food writer and recipe developer, blue-ribbon baker, public speaker, and occasional social media consultant. His blog is Eat the Love and his first cookbook is Marbled, Swirled and Layered.

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One Comment

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  1. Dragonfly43

    There are places here that sell King Cake with the frangipane filling but have only found it in NOLA. That’s my favorite! I’ve just never been crazy about the sugar topping on them. That being said, this looks like a good recipe and thanks to Mr. Lin for sharing the history so people outside Louisiana will get an understanding of this tradition.

Top view of a homemade king cake on a white plate. Forks and a green linen are to the left. A small plastic baby figurine is above as well as Mardi Gras beadsKing Cake