King Cake, a pastry common to the Cajun culture with origins in 12th century France to celebrate the coming of the Three Magi to see the Infant Jesus, is a fantastically fun way to celebrate from Epiphany through Mardi Gras. King Cakes tend to be big, and messy and gaudy. They're frosted with gold, green and purple icing (I make a simple buttercream) and of course, each color is significant. The gold stands for kingly power, which I assume is the power of the newborn king who was also the living God; the purple stands for justice and the green stands for faith. That's nice, isn't it? It is until you actually see the King Cake -- the icing is generally glopped on and it runs down the inside and the outside of the cake in a haphazard manner. When I say inside and outside, I mean that the King Cake is made of braided cinnamon bread dough baked in a bundt or tube pan. The idea is that the cake is baked in a circular shape to signify the eternal nature of God and the continuity of Christian faith. Thrifty and more self-controlled people use an easy powdered sugar-and-water glaze, but to my mind, there's nothing like about a pound of colorful buttercream frosting flowing all over over the place to make you want to par-tay.
Some people decorate the cakes with colored sugars on top of the icing, adding little colored candies. Some people wind strands of Mardi Gras beads around the outside edge of the cake. I've also seen cakes with little flags -- Lousiana, French and papal -- stuck on top. Basically, what you're going for is not a Mies van der Rohe-of-the-patisserie kind of look, all simple and clean lines and constructed with minimalism in mind. No, you're going for a party-shop explosion of a cake, the more decorated the better.
But it's what's inside the King Cake that makes it truly special. See that little package of plastic babies I'm holding in the photo above? I got those at Balloons, Etc. in the baby shower aisle for about two dollars. For an authentic King Cake, you take one of those babies (representing the Baby Jesus) and stick it in the cake after it's finished baking. Then you slop all that colored buttercream over everything to help disguise the baby's whereabouts -- because the three kings had to search for the Holy Family on their travels, right? -- and decorate accordingly. NOW you have yourself a King Cake.
If the people who are going to be eating the King Cake are not hip to the fact that there's going to be a plastic baby in there somewhere, you might want to warn them. I'm thinking that chomping down on a plastic baby might not be such a happy way to celebrate the Magi and the visit they paid to the babe in the manger with their rich gifts.
The person who gets the baby gets a little prize of some sort and the honor of being the one to bring the King Cake to the next year's Epiphany or Mardi Gras party (or any party in between those two dates.) The little prize could be religious in nature, like a rosary or a little bottle of holy water or some holy cards. Or it could be some candy, preferably something in gold wrappers, like Rolo candies. If the finder of the plastic baby requires the winner to show her boobs before she can claim her prize, YOU ARE AT THE WRONG KIND OF PARTY AND PROBABLY MAKING THE BABY JESUS CRY.
EASY KING CAKE
3 cans of refrigerated cinnamon roll dough, like Pillsbury or similar
1 cup of butter, softened
approximately 8 cups confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup half-and-half
purple, green and yellow food coloring (I prefer Wilton's gel icing colors, which produce a deep, rich color)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. On a clean working surface, unwrap the containers of cinnamon roll dough. Unroll three strands of dough and pinch them together at the top, then braid them into a nice, long braid. If you have daughters and spent their childhood years braiding their hair, this will be a very easy task for you. Repeat with the rest of the cinnamon roll dough; it will come out evenly.
Place the braids into a Bundt or tube-style cake pan that has been well-misted with cooking spray. As you add each braid, pinch it onto the one you put in before so that there's a cohesive mass inside your cake pan. Place the cake pan in the preheated oven and cover with a strip of aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. Bake for twenty minutes. At the end of twenty minutes, remove the foil and continue baking for another fifteen minutes or so.
[Make your buttercream icing while the cake is baking]
Warning: This is one of those recipes where you're going to have to rely on your sense of smell to know when the cake is finished baking. And also, depending on the size of your Bundt or tube pan, the dough may rise up over the top, necessitating an evening-up kind of maneuver once the finished cake has cooled. That's because our familiarity with cinnamon rolls generally extends to them being baked separately on a cookie sheet, whereas now they're all squashed together in those braids, so being able to smell "doneness" would be a great thing. If the dough gets too brown in spite of your best efforts, comfort yourself with the thought that it's all going to be covered up with a ton of icing, so no one will be the wiser.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about fifteen minutes on a wire rack. Carefully invert the cake pan over a cake plate. There are chances that the cake will be lumpy and bumpy instead of smooth and taking on the scalloped shape of the Bundt pan, if you're using one. That's okay. This is a King Cake and we're not looking for wedding confectionery perfection. While the cake is still cooling, take one of your plastic babies and stick it somewhere in that inner circle where it can't be seen.
The buttercream icing is so easy to make. The most important thing is to make sure that your butter is SOFT but not overly melted. If your butter is too stiff, there will be ugly little lumps in the icing. If it is too melty, you won't have a good texture for spreading and you'll wind up with bare patches on the cake's shoulders and huge puddles of gooey frosting on your cake plate. So stir those ingredients together, adding the confectioner's sugar little by little so that you don't cause whiteout conditions in your kitchen. Divide the completed frosting into three bowls, add a small drop of each food coloring to each bowl. Stir and add more to make the color more vivid, if you'd like; you simply cannot be gaudy enough with a King Cake. You may not need ALL the icing, it's hard to tell. Wait until the cake is well cooled and start glopping it on there. You be the judge. You can also use cream cheese icing, by the way, but it is so enormously rich on the already-rich cinnamon bread that I think it's just a little too much of a good thing.
If you have them, you can sprinkle gold, purple and green colored sugars on the cake. Be-dazzle the cake with little silver dragees or M&M's in the appropriate colors. GO WILD. Do not show your boobs to anyone who comes into the kitchen. That will make you a bad, bad cook, even if your cake tastes delicious.
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