4 Things You Need to Know About Mardi Gras & King Cakes

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Mardi Gras king cake

By Michele D. Baker 

The modern American Mardi Gras season (Carnival) officially begins on January 6, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, also known as Epiphany – the day Jesus first showed himself to the three wise men and to the larger world. The festivities last from Epiphany until Lent, with “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras, in French) being the last day of revelry and decadence before the more sober period of Lent begins.  

Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday has a moveable date and may occur on any Tuesday from February 3 to March 9, as the date is set according to when Easter falls each year. It’s always the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which lasts 46 days (about one and a half months) until the celebration of Easter. In 2024, Mardi Gras is February 13. 

One of the most enduring traditions during Carnival is feasting on “king cake,” again named because of the Biblical story of the three wise kings who brought gifts to Baby Jesus. A ring-shaped blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll, it is frequently packed with fruit and decadent cream cheese fillings. (Get seasonal king cakes in Publix bakeries and Alessi Bakery in Tampa.)

Related: Better Homes and Gardens: How the King Cake Baby Tradition Began

Most king cakes are traditionally decorated with the royal color purple, which signifies justice; green for growth; and gold, representing prosperity and wealth. These colors resemble a jeweled crown, and in fact, the traditional Spanish version of this cake is called Roscón de Reyes (crown of the king). 

In the past, such things as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were also hidden in each cake. Today, a tiny plastic baby is the most used item, though chocolate babies or other edibles are sometimes used instead. At a Mardi Gras party, the king cake is sliced and served fresh. Each reveler looks to see if their piece of king cake contains the baby. If so, that person is declared “king for a day” and bound by historical Mardi Gras custom to host the next party, thus sparking an unending round of food and fun. Laissez les bon temps rouler! 

Related: Vinegar Valentines: Sour (Not Sweet) Nothings

Betty Crocker’s Mardi Gras King Cake 

This recipe has a lot of steps, but don’t worry… it’s not as hard as it seems, and freshly baked king cake is hard to beat. The brioche style dough is beautiful to work with and offers up a moist, buttery cake. 

For the cake: 

  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 package (2-1/4 teaspoons) rapid rise yeast 
  • 1 cup milk 
  • 1/4 cup sugar 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into 12 pieces 
  1. Mix 2-1/2 cups flour and yeast in mixing bowl of stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, on low for about 30 seconds.
  2. Heat milk, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, and milk is between 120°F to 130°F. 
  3. With mixer on low, pour in liquids and mix until incorporated. Add eggs one at a time. Continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms. Clean off paddle and switch to dough hook. Mix in the remaining 1 cup flour a little at a time, adding more (or less) flour as needed to make a soft dough. Add the softened butter, one piece at a time, kneading until each piece of butter is absorbed. 
  4. Knead for 8 minutes on low. The dough should completely clear the sides of the bowl. If it is too sticky, add flour 1 Tablespoon at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding more flour. If the dough seems too dry, spritz with water from a spray bottle, mixing in thoroughly before determining if more water is needed. Every 2 minutes, scrape the dough off the hook and continue kneading.
  5. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times; form dough into a ball and place into a greased bowl, turning once so greased surface is on top. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. 

Cinnamon Filling: 

  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar 
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (optional) 
  1. While the dough is chilling, make cinnamon filling. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar and ground cinnamon. Combine butter with cinnamon mixture and mix well. 
  2. Roll the chilled dough into a 10” x 20” rectangle. Spread the filling on half of the long side of the dough. Fold in half to cover the filling and pat firmly so the dough will stick. Shape into a ring and press the edges together. 
  3. Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Cover the ring with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Bake at 350° until golden brown, 20-35 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet, then place it on a cooling rack to cool completely before icing. To hide the baby in the cake, make a small slit in the bottom of the cake and push miniature plastic baby into cooled cake. 

Icing: 

  • 1 cup powdered sugar 
  • 1 Tablespoon milk 
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 
  1. In a small bowl, mix icing ingredients (add additional milk if mixture is too thick, or powdered sugar if too thin). 
  2. Spoon icing over top of the cake. Immediately sprinkle on colored sugars, alternating between the three colors: dark green, purple, and yellow or gold

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