Cakes honoring the Magi are served on Epiphany (January 6) in many Catholic cultures, including France and Mexico. In Louisiana, however, they herald the arrival of the dozens of kings and queens who will reign over various Carnival balls and parades.
The decorated brioche rings are a New Orleans specialty seen in bakeries and supermarkets in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, from Twelfth Night until Ash Wednesday. If you “get the baby” (a small plastic trinket concealed in one of the slices), you must provide the cake for the next party.
Carnival King Cake
Toast the Carnival season (and the guest who gets the baby) with demi-sec Champagne.
1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. fine sea salt
1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
3/4 cup chilled unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 ovenproof charm, such as a Mardi Gras baby, or a whole almond
1 large egg yolk whisked with 1 Tbs. water, for brushing
Purpose, green and gold (yellow) decorating sugars
In a food processor, combine the sugar and lemon zest and process for 15 seconds to blend. Add the flour, salt and yeast and process for another 15 seconds to blend. Cut the butter into 12 pieces and distribute the pieces evenly around the processor bowl, pushing them down into the flour mixture. Pulse about 15 times, or until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a large measuring pitcher or a bowl with a spout, whisk together the eggs and milk. With the processor running, pour the egg mixture through the feed tube and process for 30 to 40 seconds, stopping to scrape down the sides if necessary. The dough should be very soft and sticky.
Scrape the dough into a large bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. The dough will stiffen as it chills to the consistency of a dense cookie dough.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working quickly, before the dough warms up and begins to soften, place the cold dough on the parchment and use your hand to mold it into an oblong ring about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide with a hole in the center. Using damp hands, pat the ring smooth. Push the charm or the almond into the underside of the dough to conceal it. Cover the dough ring loosely with another sheet of parchment paper. Set the pan aside in a warm, draft-free place and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 3 hours.
Preheat an oven to 375°F.
Brush the surface of the dough gently and evenly with the egg yolk mixture. Sprinkle generously with the decorating sugars, alternating wide stripes of purple, green and gold.
Bake until the cake is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool on the pan for at least 10 minutes.
Transfer the cake to a serving plate and serve warm or at room temperature. Cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Serves 16.