Some traditionalists, such as Bayou Bakery chef and owner David Guas, will tell you that fillings have no place in king cakes. But cookbook author Krystina Castella clearly is bound by no tradition in her version of the Mardi Gras staple.
Her braided king cake is laced with a cream-cheese filling in each of the three dough rolls. Even more interesting, her icing is spiked with a half-cup of lemon juice, which provides plenty of pucker to help offset the sugar overload that is surely waiting at the end of this cake. Baker beware: Castella assumes that you know how to braid. If you don't, start Googling.
- For the cake
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup milk, warmed
- 4 3/4 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Finely grated zest from 1/2 lemon (1 teaspoon)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking sheet, at room temperature
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 tiny plastic baby or hard candy
- For the filling
- 8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 large egg yolk
- Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon (1 teaspoon)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the egg wash
- 1 large egg white
- 1 tablespoon milk
- For the icing
- 4 cups confectioners' sugar
- 8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Finely grated zest from 1 or 2 lemons; freshly squeezed juice from 3 1/2 small lemons (1 1/2 teaspoons zest; 1/2 cup juice)
- Yellow food coloring (optional)
- 1 tablespoon red-, green- and gold-colored sugars
- 1/4 cup candied cherries, each cut in half (optional)
For the cake: Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar and the milk. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Combine the flour, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon zest in a food processor. Pulse 3 to 5 times to combine.
Combine the butter and the remaining sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer; beat on medium speed until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Gradually add to the flour mixture and process until coarse, then add the yeast mixture. Pulse 8 to 10 times, or until the dough forms a ball. If it is too sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time. If it is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and cover. Let sit in a warm, dry place for at least 2 hours, until the dough doubles in volume.
For the filling: Whisk together the cream cheese, sugar, flour, egg yolk, lemon juice and vanilla extract in a bowl, until smooth.
Use a little butter to grease a large baking sheet. Lightly flour a work surface.
When the dough is ready, punch it down a couple of times to flatten it a bit. Divide the dough equally into 3 pieces. Roll out one piece on the floured work surface to a rectangle about 12 inches by 4 inches with a thickness of about 3/8 inch. Spread one-third of the cream cheese filling over the dough, leaving a bare 1 inch on all sides. Then roll up the long side of the dough, forming a long cylinder, and pinch the edges to seal. Repeat with the two remaining pieces of dough.
Braid the 3 cylinders together, then wrap the braid into a circle. Where the ends come together, insert the plastic baby and pinch the ends together to seal, smoothing the dough to hide the seam. Transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for 45 minutes or until the dough doubles in volume.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the egg wash: Whisk together the egg white and milk in a small bowl; use it brush it with the top of the braided dough.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden or until an instant-read thermometer reads 200 to 210 degrees. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack; cool the cake completely.
For the icing: Combine the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held mixer; beat on low speed until smooth. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and a drop of yellow food coloring, if using; beat until well incorporated and smooth.
Pour or pipe the lemon icing over the cake. Sprinkle immediately with colored sugars and candied cherries, if desired. Let the topping set before serving.
Adapted from Castella's "A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far" (Storey Publishing, 2010).
Tested by Tim Carman.
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