My family often celebrates Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which falls on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. We set the table with English Crackers and have a King Cake for dessert. Whoever gets the piece with something special inside is given a small present.
This year, on January 6 we drove to Seattle and back, ate on the road, and when we got home my husband was busy packing to go out of town the next day. Twelfth Night passed by without our usual celebration.
The Season of Epiphany
While we weren't able to celebrate Epiphany on January 6, the season of Epiphany officially lasts until Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In the New Orleans area, in particular, I am told that King Cakes are popular from Epiphany until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 5 this year. Well, I may not live in New Orleans, but I've lived close enough, and we are still weeks away from February 5, so I decided to go ahead and make a King Cake anyway, to celebrate the Epiphany season.
I thought it would be fun to collect some new ideas on how to prepare a King Cake, so I did a quick Internet search. Among other things, I found some interesting information about Mardi Gras and adapted a filling from the most interesting recipe I found at Cupcake Project. Generally I found agreement about the basics. A King Cake is similar to a coffee cake or tea ring. It is a yeast dough, often braided, traditionally shaped in a ring or oval, perhaps to represent Christian unity or the circular route taken by the Magi to avoid King Herod, and decorated with colored sugar. The colors used are the colors of Mardi Gras, purple to symbolize justice, green to symbolize faith, and gold to symbolize power. Perhaps the three colors also represent the three kings. I have also read of King Cakes being decorated with red sugar to symbolize the life of Jesus.
King Cake Traditions
When a King Cake is cut, each guest anxiously awaits his piece to see if a small "baby" can be found inside. This, no doubt, symbolizes the search of the three kings to find the Christ child as is told in the Gospel of Matthew. Then, whoever finds the "baby" is obligated to host, or at least bring a King Cake to, the next seasonal celebration. What's more the "baby" is supposed to bring good fortune to the person who finds him.
It is nice to have at least a small gathering of people to share a King Cake with since it is most fun when someone finds the "baby" in their first slice of cake. The "baby" might be a small plastic baby if you can find one, or it can be a large whole nut. I couldn't find my plastic baby and since the cake I made this year had a praline filling I was afraid a nut might not be noticed so I used a piece a chocolate instead. A chocolate kiss would be a good size. Whatever you choose to symbolize the baby tell your guests what they are looking for and enjoy their anticipation as they search for the "baby" in their slice.
I do have one bit of advice. Especially if you are using a plastic baby in your King Cake you will want to heed this "Very Important Tip" I found on Cupcake Project - "Do not put the baby in the cake when you bake it. It will melt. Put it in afterwards." Even if you use a chocolate kiss this is a good idea, since the chocolate might run out and give away its location.
To make my King Cake I ended up using a sweet yeast dough that I have used for many years and adapted for a bread machine.
Sweet Yeast Dough
1 envelope of yeast
3 2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2/3 cup warmed milk (approximately 115-120 degrees)
1/4 cup warm water
1 -2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Purple, Green and Yellow decorative sugars
Place the ingredients for the Sweet Yeast Dough in a bread machine. The ingredients are listed in the order suggested by the manufacturer of my machine but recommendations vary so follow the order suggested for your machine. Set your machine to the 'manual' setting so that you can take the dough out, when ready, and shape it by hand.
(The dough can also be prepared in the traditional way: Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Heat the milk, water and butter over low heat until warm, 115 to 120 degrees. Add mixture to the dry ingredients, along with the egg, and stir until a dough forms. Turn the dough onto a well floured surface and knead for approximately 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn once. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until double, approximately 1 - 1 1/2 hours. Continue as follows.)
In a small mixing bowl, mix together the ingredients for the Praline Filling until it forms a paste. Set aside.
When the dough is ready take it out of the machine and divide it into two equal portions. Cover it with a towel and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
Roll each portion into a 18 x 8 inch rectangle. Spread half of the Praline Filling across half of each dough rectangle as pictured below:
Fold the dough in half, lengthwise, as pictured:
then roll the dough out slightly, to press the filling in the middle, till it forms a rectangle roughly 20 x 5 inches.
Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut the dough into three equal strips. Beginning in the middle, braid these strips to each end:
Form the braid into an oval and pinch the strips together to join them in a continuous braid. (This part can be a little tricky, but the finished cake will be blanketed in icing, so any rough spots can be easily covered.) Place the cake on a greased baking sheet, with a small glass bowl in the middle of the shape, if desired, to prevent the dough from coming together in the center when it rises and bakes.
Cover the cake with a towel and place in a warm, draft free location to rise until nearly double,( approximately 1 hour).
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 25minutes, (check after 20 minutes), or until golden brown.
Cool cake on wire rack. When completely cool, Turn the cake over and cut a small slit in between the braided strips to insert the "baby". A small plastic baby can be used if you have one. This time I used a Dove dark chocolate candy.
Turn the cake right side up on a serving plate. Mix together the ingredients for the icing until smooth. Drizzle the icing over the cake or place it in a Ziplock baggie, snip a 1/4 inch slit in a lower corner of the bag and pipe the icing in a back and forth motion over the top of the cake. Sprinkle green, yellow and purple decorator sugars alternately over the icing. Serve and enjoy!