King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling

The Grocery 2As I write these lines, I’m sitting in an apartment high above the streets below where snow is still more than a foot deep in many places — remnants from the recent blizzard. Just days ago we received another 1-2 inches and yesterday we received 2 inches more! I still like snow, mind you, but I think we’re nearly filled to capacity for the time being. In other words, it’s safe for me to start daydreaming about warmer times and places without seeming the slightest bit hypocritical.

I come from a place far removed from the Great Lakes, the wind-swept plains, and amber waves of grain in the Midwest. My earliest roots grew deep in swamp mud — mud warmed by summers that seemed to last ten months out of the year. A part of the world where the words simmering, sizzling, and sultry must surely have come into being. I’m talking, of course, about South Louisiana.

While, in the Chicago area, February is spent hunkered down indoors where one might be brave enough to start planning for spring as a far off event; in Louisiana, February might bring a “cold spell” or two your way, but you can pretty well see the signs of a short-lived spring already approaching. n682919864_1472622_9473In fact, February is an even bigger contrast in Louisiana because it is usually at the very center of carnival season in New Orleans and Cajun country. From roughly the second week of January until Ash Wednesday, it is officially party time. Out come the beads, the costumes, the jazzy parade music, the drag queens, the booze… the KING CAKES.

Admittedly, I grew up in a pretty strict (read: dry) Protestant family. As such, we didn’t look too highly on most parts of the Mardi Gras celebration. After all, New Orleans during Mardi Gras season closely resembles most Southern Baptists’ modern vision of Sodom and Gomorrah — full of drunken brawls, licentiousness, voo-doo, bare breasts, and swearing; things most respectable people reserve for R-rated movies and weeknight TV dramas, in other words.

St. Louis 1

No, I’ve never actually been to New Orleans during carnival season. In truth — now that I’m all grown up — I probably never will. But, the one aspect of Mardi Gras that my entire family and I welcomed graciously was gluttony — especially in regards to King Cake.

Rather than what most people would consider cake, King Cake is closer to a ring-shaped bread. It comes from a long-time Christian tradition of celebrating the end of the Christmas season (Epiphany) when the three kings arrived to present gifts to the infant Christ and continues the celebration all the way until the beginning of the Lenten season when everyone is supposed to put on their sorrowful and remorseful faces for at least 40 days. The earliest origins of this cinnamon-filled sweet bread is often attributed to France and Spain — both of which had a hand in the colonization of Louisiana.

St. Charles Streetcar 3

Of course — as with all things traditional — King Cake has morphed and grown over the centuries to include all sorts of sophisticated toppings, fillings, and preparation methods. The most traditional form, however, is a cinnamon infused, brioche-like dough that is braided, shaped into a ring, baked, and topped with sugary, multi-colored glazes and sugars. (The Cajuns in south and southwest Louisiana, by the way, typically deep fry their version!) What’s not to like, eh?

Garden District 6Once I moved to Chicago — where King Cakes are pretty well unknown outside of a Polish pastry called Pączki — I endeavored to make my own King Cake to share it with my Chicago pals. After some trial and error and looking through several recipes, I managed to create a workable recipe.

Today’s recipe is my home-style version of King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling. I also have a recipe for a cinnamon-pecan filling that I may share next year. My friends in Louisiana will probably notice some minor departures from what’s considered traditional, but I should point out that NONE of these friends are usually found in the kitchen making their own King Cakes. Rather, they simply swing by the nearest grocery store and pick one up the way most people pick up a loaf of bread. So, in rebuttal, I’ll add that homemade — as usual — has its own inimitable charm.

If you take a look through the ingredient list, you’ll notice that most of the ingredients are quite common in just about anyone’s kitchen. In other words, I wouldn’t call this recipe “complicated” but merely “involved”. If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and you want to experience a little taste of Mardi Gras in your kitchen, give this recipe a try!

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King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 14-18

    Cake:
    1/2 cup warm water – (100-110º)
    1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
    1/2 cup + 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
    4 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, divided
    6 teaspoons gluten (optional if using bread flour)
    1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    2 teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon lemon zest
    1/2 cup warm milk – (100-110º)
    5 large egg yolks
    10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 

    Cream Cheese Filling:
    8 ounces neufchatel cheese – softened
    1 cup confectioner’s sugar
    2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/4 teaspoon almond extract
    1 pinch salt

    Poured Frosting:
    4 tablespoons unsalted butter
    1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 pinch salt
    3-4 tablespoons water

    Colored Sugars:
    12 tablespoons turbinado sugar
    green food coloring
    yellow food coloring
    purple food coloring*

    Making the Dough
    Pour the warm water into a small bowl and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons of sugar into it. Allow the yeast and sugar to rest for about 10 minutes or until foamy and fragrant.

    In a large bowl, combine remaining sugar, 3 1/2 cups of flour, gluten, nutmeg, salt, and lemon zest. 

Add the yeast mixture and warm milk. Stir a few times, then add the egg yolks one at a time, stirring until smooth. Gradually beat in the softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue to beat 2 minutes or until the dough is shiny and can be formed into a medium soft ball.

 (you may need to add a bit of additional flour)

    Roll dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead, gradually kneading in 1/2 – 1 cup additional flour — just enough to keep the dough from sticking to your hands or the work surface. When the dough is no longer sticky, knead 10 minutes more until shiny and elastic.

 Place in a large bowl coated with cooking spray; turn dough to coat. Cover with plastic wrap; place in a warm location to rise for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.

    Preparing the Filling
    Meanwhile, prepare the cream cheese filling. Beat the neufchatel cheese in a medium bowl until creamy. Slowly add the confectioner’s sugar and flour; beat well. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Keep at room temperature.

    Shaping and Filling the Cake
    Line a large baking sheet with foil then spray foil with cooking spray; set aside. After the first rising; punch dough down and allow to rest 5 minutes. Turn dough out and knead 3-5 times; roll into a very long rope, about 48 inches. Don’t stretch the dough. If it resists rolling out in length, allow to rest for 2 minutes and continue rolling. Using a rolling pin, flatten the rope to make a strip of dough approximately 48″ x 5″.

    Sprinkle the strip with the cinnamon. Using a large spoon, spread the cream cheese filling down the middle of the strip, leaving about a 2-inch border from all sides (very important to leave a border). Fold one long side of the strip over the filling to the other border side. Very carefully, pinch the long seam together to seal in the filling. Be sure the seam is secured and there are no thin spots. On both of the short ends, fold the dough carefully toward the center; pinch to seal.

    Bend the strip to form a large U-shape by lining up both sealed ends. Carefully form a twist then form the twist into a large ring; pinch the ends together carefully (do not pinch into an area where filling will escape). Place the ring onto the prepared baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and then cover with a moistened kitchen towel; place in a warm place to rise for 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

    Preparing the Frosting & Toppings
    Preheat oven to 375-degrees. Meanwhile, prepare the poured frosting. In a small saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until golden brown, stirring frequently. Remove the saucepan from the heat; stir in the sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir in enough water to make an icing of drizzling consistency; set aside.

    To make the colored sugars, divide the 12 tablespoons of sugar evenly in three small bowls or jars. To each bowl of sugar, add a few drops of yellow, green, or purple food coloring and stir until desired color is reached, adding more food coloring as necessary. *Do not attempt to create purple food coloring using the standard blue and red food coloring. This will result in blackish-blue or reddish-black sugar without fail. If you are unable to find purple food coloring, you may be able to find purple sugar in a baking store or in your grocery store in the cake decorating section.

    Baking and Decorating
    Uncover the ring and brush carefully with beaten egg white or milk. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon, if desired. Bake at 375-degrees for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown. 

Allow to cool on baking sheet on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes or until just warm to the touch. Pour the frosting into a small zip-top bag and seal. Using scissors, cut off one corner of the bag and squeeze the frosting onto the warm cake ring. Spread evenly with a spoon or spatula. While the frosting is still sticky and shiny, sprinkle on the colored sugars to create alternating stripes of color.

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As the cake bakes, your entire house will smell like a giant doughnut factory as the small amount of lemon zest and nutmeg work magic along with the cinnamon, butter and brioche dough.

Though I sometimes don’t include it, it is traditional to insert a kidney bean, tiny plastic baby doll, or a fake golden coin into the baked and cooled King Cake. As the tradition goes, the guest who discovers the hidden treasure in the cake — either by biting into it or suffering a near-death choking experience — is responsible for hosting the next King Cake party. If you decide to follow this tradition, you might at least warn your guests so there are no insurance claims!

As many in my family would agree, their mouths full of doughy goodness, their lips stained green and purple, “You could leave off the colored sugars and I’d like it just as much!” I suppose you could leave off the colored sugars, but they are a big part of the tradition and I love how the loud colors seem to scream of festivity.

A few other notes about the recipe:

    * If you use bread flour, you can get by without adding additional gluten to the flour for the cake. Adding the gluten, however, will increase the rise and texture of the cake in either case. 

    * If you are afraid of cooking with yeast or you’ve never tried it, check out this post for some tips about yeast breads and kneading.

    * I prefer to use turbinado sugar for the colored sugars since it lends a nice texture and appearance. Plus, since turbinado sugar is light brown in color, the yellow food coloring turns a nice, shimmery golden color rather than a flat yellow.

    * Admittedly, it took me three tries to learn how to form the cake into a twist and seal it in a way that kept the filling from coming out. Patience! Even if you mess it up a little bit, it’ll still taste great!

Over the past few years, I’ve been asked to make King Cakes for our friends’ annual Mardi Gras party. April & Vince always put together a great Louisiana-inspired spread — and April mixes a mean Hurricane that pairs splendidly with her piquant jambalaya and an evening of lively conversation! Maybe as Mardi Gras draws closer, I’ll have time to share another Louisiana recipe with you so you can complete your celebration.

No matter where you are north or south of the Mason-Dixon line, break the doldrums of this cold, February. Invite a few friends over, put on some Dixieland, brew up some strong coffee, maybe swirl up a Hurricane or two, and pass around slices of King Cake. Spring will seem closer than ever, I promise!

(I took the New Orleans pictures for this post on our trip to Louisiana back in April 2009. The King Cake pictures are pictures of last year’s cakes. Unfortunately, I was not yet blogging, so there aren’t any helpful pictures of the shaping or filling process to share with you. I promise to try to remember to take some when I make this year’s.)

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~ by Jason on February 8, 2011.

7 Responses to “King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling”

  1. Ok, you need to just have me over to dinner!! 😀
    Hope you guys are doing well!

  2. Wahoo! A picture from my house on the blog! Can’t wait for this year’s creation. Maybe there could be a tiny cake without frosting for someone very special? I’m just sayin’! 😉

  3. Only thing better, Jason, is ditch the colored granulated sugar for colored sugary glaze. No grit, and tastes divine. Love cream cheese king cakes, favorite is however, pecan praline…yummy!

    Would love to try yours though. Will have to make sure you pick up one from Navarre’s when you are home. They know how to do them up right.

    “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez”……Let the good times roll! (but mostly the good food!)

    Love ya much,
    Aunt Lisa

    • I did think to mention the colored glaze idea, but since I didn’t have a picture of the time that I did that, I thought better of it. Incidentally, I have tried a King Cake from Navarre’s and it was swell. Then again — with the exception of a King Cake from Wal-Mart — I’ve yet to meet one that I didn’t like.

  4. Yeah, I hate the ones at walmart. Navarre’s, or any bakery will do. LOL Its a good tasty cake that is way to many calories 🙂 But who’s counting…?
    Love Ya 🙂

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