For years I have seen king cake popping up all over Instagram this time of year, but I had never tried my hand at making it myself. I think it’s safe to say that even king cake fanatics typically purchase a pre-made one since they’re so readily available at stores like Whole Foods or by order through various websites. Personally, I think no store bought baked good is as good as one made at home, and there is something so satisfying about enjoying something you created with your own two hands.
As long as you set aside time for your dough to rise, this braided cake is surprisingly easy to make and form, so don’t be intimidated! You’ll thank yourself later when you’re enjoying a tasty piece of cake with your morning coffee or as a satisfying afternoon snack. I absolutely adore breakfast baked goods so this is a pretty ideal breakfast for me. Think of it as a giant less-sweet cinnamon roll where the cinnamon is baked into the cake rather than in a sugary filling. Many king cakes these days actually do include a sugary filling, but I prefer this traditional version.
Classic King Cake
Adapted from Epicurious
For the cake:
- 1 cup whole milk, warmed to 100-110°F
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 4 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 sticks butter, melted
- 5 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
For the icing:
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/8 – 1/4 cup milk (to desired consistency)
- Purple, green, and gold decorative sugars
For the cake:
In the large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the milk, granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved. Once bubbles have developed and the mixture begins to foam, whisk in the butter, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula.
As the dough comes together and begins pulling away from the sides of the bowl, transfer the bowl to the mixer with the dough hook attached. Knead the dough slowly, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place (at least 70°F) to let it rise for 1 1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.
Preheat the oven to 375°F and prepare a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough between your palms into a long strip, making 3 ropes of equal length. Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently transfer the braided dough to the cookie sheet and set aside to rise for 30 minutes.
Place the cookie sheet on a rack in the bottom third of the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, transfer to a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
For the icing:
While the cake is cooling, whisk together all the icing ingredients until smooth and spreadable, slowly adding milk until the desired consistency is reached. Once the cake has cooled, spread the icing over the top of the cake and sprinkle with purple, green, and gold decorative sugars while the icing is still wet.
Refine Baking Tips
When baking with yeast, it is best to base the rise more off sight than time since room temperature and other factors will vary. Make sure your dough is substantially larger and has an elastic feel to it before moving on to the next step.