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 confection. 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.
This year, Mardi Gras is Feb. 25.
Cinnamon is a popular flavoring for king cake, but the cakes come in an ever-expanding array of styles and flavors, stuffed and plain — too many to list. (King cake babka, anyone?) I prefer a simple cake — an old-school, brioche-style that gets much of its sweetness from the purple, green and gold sanding sugar sprinkles on top.
This recipe will take you about four hours to prepare. Luckily, more than half of that time is spent waiting for the dough to proof.
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.