This New Orleans king cake recipe dishes out a taste of Mardi Gras

I rarely made king cakes when I was growing up in New Orleans. During Carnival, bakers and pastry chefs in the city turn out thousands of the confections in every shape, size and flavor. Baking my own seemed redundant.

New Orleanians have, as a friend once said, fetishized the Carnival staple. It has become an obsession, with photos flooding social media channels and king cake parties celebrated almost daily in homes, offices and schools.

The frenzy is warranted. The colorful treats are traditionally enjoyed only during Carnival season, which begins each year on Jan. 6 — also known as the Three Kings’ Day, Epiphany or Twelfth Night — and ends on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

Get the recipe: New Orleans King Cake

That raucous holiday can fall anywhere from Feb. 3 through March 9. It’s always the day before Ash Wednesday, which is always 46 days before Easter, a movable feast on the Christian liturgical calendar. (This year, Mardi Gras is Feb. 13.) Happily ensconced in the District, where king cake mania is considerably less frenzied, I decided to try my hand at baking one again.

When I mentioned it to a colleague at The Washington Post, she said that she liked the New Orleans-style cakes because “they are like big cinnamon rolls.” I started to roll my eyes but checked myself. If your experience with king cakes is through mail-order, that is probably all you’ve tasted. Cinnamon-roll-style king cakes are so common now, they are considered traditional.

Crescent City king cake bakers say New Orleans-area grocery stores began selling and shipping the cinnamon-flavored king cakes in the 1980s, making them more popular and readily available.

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These days, however, cinnamon seems tame. New Orleans king cakes come in an ever-expanding array of styles and flavors, stuffed and plain — too many to list. (King cake babka, anyone?) And, beyond New Orleans, the confections vary, by tradition, from city to city and country to country. For instance, the traditional French galette de rois, also popular in New Orleans, is made of puff pastry and almond paste.

Everyone has a favorite. I prefer simpler cake.

Before the cinnamon explosion in New Orleans, the king cake was more bread-like. In “The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook: Sesquicentennial Tradition Edition,” which was published in 1987 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Times-Picayune newspaper, the recipe mentions flour, eggs, butter, yeast, salt and candies to decorate. No cinnamon.

I wanted one along those lines, one that would call to mind the cakes that I remembered as a child — an old-school brioche style that gets much of its sweetness from the purple, green and gold sanding sugar sprinkles on top.

Still, even a traditionalist like me had to admit that the cake I remembered was a little dry. In stepped Chaya Conrad of Bywater Bakery in New Orleans. Her version of the cake was inspired by the same ones I treasured as a child — the ones made popular by the once-omnipresent McKenzie’s bakeries in New Orleans.

Conrad zeroed in on what those pastries were missing. The McKenzie’s cakes, she said, were too simple for modern customs and tastes.

“That’s such a plain king cake,” she said. “People expect a little bit more. I didn’t want to do cinnamon. I knew I wanted to do something that wasn’t its own filling, but something that had some extra love in it.”

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So she added what she calls her “ooey, gooey, butter schmear” — a light filling that goes inside of the cake before baking. She augments that with a healthy shake of colored sprinkles to give the cake more flavor, moisture and color — or “a little jazz,” as she said.

We’ve come up with a recipe that’s a bit less involved than the 48-hour prep Conrad uses for the cakes she sells — 10,000 in 2019. This one will take you about four hours to prepare. Luckily, more than half of that time is spent waiting for the dough to proof.

I also created my own version of Conrad’s schmear. It is optional, but I highly recommend it, because it adds a little sweetness and moisture to the otherwise bready cake. Also, royal icing is traditional, but I find it one-dimensional and too sweet, so I made a tangy buttermilk-yogurt glaze, which I now love and plan to use on other cakes as well.

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In New Orleans and many other cities, small plastic babies, trinkets or fèves are tucked inside the cake after baking. When the cake is sliced, whoever “gets the baby” is supposed to host the next party. If you want to embrace this tradition, you can find plastic king cake babies — and the traditional purple (for justice), green (for faith) and gold (for power) sugar crystals — online. The sugars also are available at craft shops. If you do insert a baby, just be sure to explain the tradition to any guests, so they can be on the lookout for it.

Conrad has one more tip: If you’re going to make a king cake at home, give yourself time.

“It’s not something that you can really rush,” she said. “It might be one of the reasons people don’t make it home, but it’s worth it.”

Get the recipe: New Orleans King Cake

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