Revision 3.12, 2011.03.08

Mardi Gras King Cake

While the king cake is most famously known in America as a New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition, it actually has its roots in European Christmas and Epiphany traditions. The New Orelans version is basically a brioche bread topped with icing and colored sugars in the traditional Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold). A small plastic baby (or nut) is hidden inside the cake.

Traditionally, whoever finds the baby is crowned the king or queen of the Mardi Gras party. In modern times king cakes begin showing up at office parties, schools, and family gatherings immediately following Epiphany (a nod to the cakes historical origins as an Epiphany tradition, also Epiphany marks the beginning of the "Mardi Gras season" and parade season in New Orleans) and the person who gets the baby is usually required to bring the king cake the following week.


Do not let the length of this recipe dissuade you from making it. It really is quite easy, it just takes a bit of advance planning and time. Set aside an evening to make this since it involves a few long fermentations. The sponge can be made the night before and put in the refrigerator to slow it down until you are ready to use it. This works best with a Kitchen-Aid type mixer and dough hook, though you could kneed it by hand.

If you chose to do this manually be prepared to get very messy, the dough is quite wet at the start. Reserve a small portion of the flour to use on your surface as you don't want to add extra flour to the recipe. Kneeding times will need to be extended.

This is a modified version of Barry Harmon's Ponge de Romans recipe using traditional king cake flavorings and cut in half.

Prep time: 3 hours or overnight + 6 hours
Bake time: about 30 minutes
Servings: 12

Ingredients (sponge):

Bread flour:65g2 1/4 ounces
Water:58g2 ounces
Dry yeast:8g4 1/2 teaspoons


Mix ingredients together until they form a loose, sticky dough. Cover and let rise 3 hours on the counter. Alternatively: Cover and let rise 30 minutes on the counter, then refrigerate overnight.

Make sure the container you use is at least twice the size of the mixture, it will expand a lot, especially if rising on the counter.

Additional ingredients:

Bread flour:440g15 1/2 ounces (by weight!)
Water:28g1 ounce
Dark rum (or water):28g1 ounce
Butter (cubed, softened):114g4 ounces (1 stick)
Sugar:100g1/2 cup
Large eggs:3
Lemon zest:1 teaspoon
Nutmeg (fresh grated):1 teaspoon
Salt:1 1/2 teaspoons


  1. Add the sponge and all ingredients except salt to a large mixer bowl and mix with the dough hook for a minute or two, until the mixture begins to come together. Shut off the mixer and let the dough rest for 20 minutes. (Note: It helps to grease the dough hook with some shortening or butter to keep the dough from sticking.)
  2. Add salt and kneed with the dough hook for 5-10 minutes, until you have a soft, sticky dough. Place into a large greased or oiled bowl, cover and let ferment at room temperature for 1 hour.
  3. Remove dough from the bowl and roll or fold it several times. (It is best if you can avoid putting down flour for this and all other procedures.) Put the dough back into greased bowl for another hour of covered fermenting. (For a detailed description of rolling and folding techniques see Barry Harmon's page.)
  4. Remove and fold again. Replace in bowl and allow to ferment for 30 minutes. Remove to counter.
  5. Kneed dough for a minute or two, form it back into a ball and flatten it out. Punch a hole in the center with your thumb and expand until the hole is at least 5 inches wide. Try to keep the ring a uniform thickness. A plastic baby or shelled nut may be placed in the ring from the bottom at this point. (See note below on shaping for filling.)
  6. Place on parchment paper, covered, and let rise for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. (Note: It is best to cover with another sheet of parchment, this dough is pretty sticky.)
  7. Set first oven rack to the lowest point. Set the other rack to middle of your oven and place a pizza stone on it if you have one. Preheat oven to 375?.
  8. Boil some water (this is to create a "steam oven" effect which will aid in the crust formation).
  9. With a sharp knife or single-edge razor blade score the top of the cake 3 or 4 times. I make a curving score from the inside of the ring near the bottom to the outside of the ring near the bottom a few inches to the right (see figure below). This controls the expansion of the dough so you get fewer weird shapes.
    image showing the scoring pattern to use on the king cake
  10. Place a cake pan or aluminum pie pan on the bottom oven rack and carefully pour the boiling water into the pan. Transfer cake on the parchment into the oven (you can transfer it directly to the pizza stone with a peel or cookie sheet, if you don't have a stone keep it on a cookie sheet.
  11. Bake for 15 minutes, check the cake. Rotate it to ensure equal baking. Finish baking (another 5-15 minutes) until golden brown and internal temperature reads 190°F, or the loaf sounds hollow when tapped (I'm not sure how filling will affect the internal temperature, so this may not be accurate).
  12. Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool totally before icing.

Shaping for filling:

Flatten dough out and roll up as in the first step of rolling the dough as described above. Gently stretch the dough out until it is about 3 feet long and 4 to 6 inches wide, make sure to keep the dough a uniform thickness along the length.

Spread filling along the length of the dough, about an inch wide. Leave at least an inch on one side of the filling and at least 2 inches on the other side. Place the baby in now.

Roll dough up, starting on the narrower side of the filling. Pinch together at the seam to seal it well, this will be the bottom of the loaf. Bring the ends together to form a ring, pinching them together to seal. Filled cakes should be baked on baking sheets to prevent a mess in the oven.

Cinnamon pecan filling:

1/2 cup dark brown sugar1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground cinnamon1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup chopped pecans


Mix all ingredients together well.

Cream cheese filling

8 ounces cream cheese, softened1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice


Mix sugar, lemon juice and cream cheese together well.

Genache filling

4 ounces high quality dark chocolate1 tablespoon butter
4 ounces heavy cream


Chop chocolate into small slivers. Heat butter and cream in a double boiler and slowly whisk in chocolate. Whisk until smooth.


1 tablespoon butter1 cup confectiner's sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice1-3 tablespoons water


Melt butter in a double boiler, add lemon juice. Remove from heat and stir in confectioner's sugar. Add water until you acheive a thick consistency that is still able to be drizzled.

Colored sugars:

1/4 cup white sugar6 drops each, blue and red food coloring
1/4 cup white sugar12 drops green food coloring
1/4 cup white sugar12 drops yellow food coloring


Drizzle icing over cooled cake, covering entierly.

Mix colored sugars well and sprinkle on the cake in bands. I usually get three of each color on the cake with bands about 2-3 inches wide.

Optional: Decorate the cake with pecan halves or almond slices.

Final Notes:

You really should use bread flour for this recipe. It absorbs a bit more water than AP flour does so the dough will be less messy to work with. Prior to the first rise it will seem very sticky, but it should come together during that first rise as the flour draws in more moisture.

Alternative shaping: Form the dough into a long tube shape and twist the tube before pinching the two ends together to form the ring. You could also form three equal tubes and braid them together before joining the ends into a ring.