When I was growing up my church always sponsored a Three King’s dinner. The dinner was held on January 6th (the 12th day after Christmas). Known as Epiphany in the Christian calendar, it’s the celebration of the day the Three Kings visited the baby Jesus. The highlight of the dinner was always dessert because that’s when the real fun of the night began. Everyone was served a piece of cake from one of three "King’s Cakes". Each cake had a plastic baby figurine baked inside. The three lucky winners who received the babies inside their piece of cake were then deemed a "King for the Night". The three kings each donned a large crown and were then able to order the rest of the dinner attendees around as their servants. The event was so much fun that I decided to bring the tradition into my own home. I bake one traditional "King’s Cake" each year with a plastic baby inside and the lucky recipient is the "King of the House" for the evening.
~Laura D., Wausau, WI
The twelve days of Christmas ends on January 6th with the Feast of Epiphany also known as the Day of the Three Kings. According to the Bible story, three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar saw a bright star in the sky and followed it to Bethlehem to find the newborn baby Jesus. When they arrived they worshipped the baby and presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season begins on January 6 and continues until Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday.) A popular local tradition is to bake a King Cake with a small baby inside, symbolizing baby Jesus, to honor the three kings. Throughout New Orleans during Mardi Gras, many King Cake Parties are held. The tradition is that the person whose slice of cake contains the baby will be rewarded with good luck and is also responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next gathering.
Official Mardi Gras King Cake Recipe
- 1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3-1/2 cups unsifted flour
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 5 egg yolks
- 1 stick butter cut in slices and softened, plus 2 tablespoons more
- 1 egg slightly beaten with a tablespoon of milk
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tiny plastic doll (not more than 1")
Pour the warm water into a small shallow bowl and sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar into it. Allow the yeast and sugar to rest for three minutes, then mix thoroughly. Set bowl in a warm place for 10 minutes until yeast bubbles up. Combine 3-1/2 cups of flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg and salt and sift into a large mixing bowl.
Stir in lemon zest. Separate center of mixture to form a hole and pour in yeast mixture and milk. Add egg yolks and using a wooden spoon, combine dry ingredients into the yeast/milk mixture. When mixture is smooth, beat in 8 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time and continue to beat 2 minutes or until dough can be formed into a medium soft ball.
Place ball of dough on floured surface and knead, gradually adding up to 1 cup more of flour. When dough is no longer sticky, knead 10 minutes more until shiny and elastic.
Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a large bowl evenly with one tablespoon softened butter. Place dough ball in the bowl and rotate until the entire surface is buttered. Cover bowl with a heavier kitchen towel and allow dough to rise in a warm place for about 1-1/2 hours or until it doubles in volume. Coat a large baking sheet with one tablespoon of butter and set aside. After the first rising, place the dough on a floured surface and punch it down with a heavy blow. Sprinkle cinnamon, then pat and shape the dough into a long 'snake' or 'cylinder'. Form a twist by folding the long cylinder in half, end to end, and pinching the ends together. Then twist the dough. Form a ring with the completed twist pinch the ends together. Place the completed ring on the buttered baking sheet, cover it with a towel and allow it to rise for 45 minutes or until it doubles in volume.
After the second rising, brush the top and sides of the cake with the egg and milk wash. Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack and hide the plastic baby in the cake.
- Colored sugar
- Green, purple and yellow coloring paste (sold with cake decorating supplies)
- 12 tablespoons sugar
Divide sugar into three portions (for green, yellow and purple).
Add a tiny amount of the coloring paste to each sugar portion. Try mixing the sugar and colored pasted between your palms for best results. Set aside.
- 3/4 cups confectioners sugar
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 36 tablespoons of water
Combine ingredients until smooth, adding more water if it's too thick. Spoon icing over top of cake. Immediately sprinkle on colored sugars, alternating between the three colors. Serve in 2” thick slices.