New Orleans has long gripped my imagination. I wish I could credit jazz, architectural history or some other lofty aspect of culture for my fascination, but it really just comes down to the food. The words alone were beguiling enough to the bookworm of a Kansas farm girl that I once was. Etouffée, beignets, jambalaya, gumbo—I loved rolling the syllables off my tongue even before I tasted the foods themselves.
When that happened, it was a revelation. The layers of spices, herbs and other flavors made famous first by Paul Prudhomme and later Emeril Lagasse were addictive, especially the way the Kiki’s Bonton Maison in Kansas City used to combine them. When my husband suggested we host a crawfish boil for friends back in the early 1990s, I was all for it. We dragged out our big copper kettle, I bought a copy of The New Cajun-Creole Cooking and we ordered crawfish from Louisiana. The party was enough of a success that we repeated it for years, finally calling it quits when the guest list neared 100.
But still, I’d never actually been to New Orleans. That finally happened in 2008, and both of us have since traveled regularly to NOLA for work. I go for Tales of the Cocktail, the husband for drier conventions. It was on one of those trips that he returned with a heretofore unknown treat: king cake.
More sweet bread than cake, it was filled with cream cheese and topped with a powdered sugar glaze and purple, green and gold sugar crystals. There was a bit of the scrum when the kids found out only one tiny, plastic baby was hidden in the cake, but that just meant fewer leftovers.
It turns out king cakes represent more than dessert, though. They celebrate the biblical three kings and their gifts to baby Jesus and are typically served between Jan. 6, the beginning of Epiphany, and Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, says mardigrasneworleans.com.
Thousands of king cakes are consumed each year, according to Paul’s Pastry Shop in Picayune, Mississippi, which takes credit for first filling them with cream cheese and fruit back in the 1970s. France, Belgium, Spain and other countries have their own styles, but the American version is unique thanks to its place in Mardi Gras, described by Paul’s as “A cultural gumbo of European tradition, pagan celebration and religious doctrine, spiced with more than a dash of local flavor.”
I don’t know how much of that will go down in my household tonight, but we will at least have king cake.
This gluten-free and dairy-free recipe is adapted from Jules Gluten Free, so you can obviously use Jules Gluten Free™ All Purpose Flour. However, I had Better Batter on hand, so that’s what I used and it turned out great. I can’t vouch for other brands or blends. The dough came together nicely, but as is typical with gluten-free goodies, it cracked quite a lot as I rolled it up, made the circle and transferred it to the baking sheet. Hold your breath, go slow and don’t sweat the cracks—cutting the top layer of dough at the end exposes the filling anyway, and it will taste just as sweet.
1/4 cup warm water (110F)
1 tablespoon granulated cane sugar
2-1/4 teaspoon (1 packet) highly active, fast rise yeast
1/2 cup unsalted butter or non-dairy alternative such as Earth Balance® Buttery Sticks)
3 tablespoons granulated cane sugar
1/4 cup warm milk (dairy or non-dairy)
2 large eggs (room temperature)
3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoon gluten-free baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (or 1/4 teaspoon if using non-dairy alternative)
2 tablespoons milk (dairy or non-dairy) for brushing on pastry before baking
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
1 apple, peeled and chopped (optional)
2/3 cup chopped pecans (optional)
4 tablespoon butter or non-dairy alternative (e.g. Earth Balance® Buttery Sticks)
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1-2 tablespoons milk (dairy or non-dairy)
1/4 teaspoons pure almond extract (optional)
colored sugar (purple, gold and green)
1. Prepare the filling by tossing the chopped apples together with the gluten-free flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, melt the 4 tablespoons butter, and set both bowls aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine the warm water, 1 tablespoon sugar and yeast; stir and set aside to proof. If the mixture is not bubbly and doubled in volume after 5-10 minutes, toss out and start again with fresh yeast.
3. In a large mixing bowl, blend the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the milk and eggs and beat until well-integrated. Add only 2 cups of gluten-free flour, salt, baking powder and nutmeg and mix well. Stir in the proofed yeast-sugar-water mixture, then add the remaining 1 cup gluten-free flour. Beat another 1-2 minutes, until the dough is clumping together and is not too sticky.
4. Prepare a large baking sheet by lining with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a silicone pastry mat or onto a clean counter dusted lightly with gluten-free flour (be sure to have enough counter space, at least 30 inches wide). Roll the dough out to an elongated rectangle 24-30 inches long by 9-10 inches wide. Brush on the melted butter, coating the entire rectangle. Sprinkle the filling mixture on top of the melted butter, spreading to the ends of the rectangle, but leaving 1/2-1 inch without toppings on each of the long sides of the rectangle.
5. Using a bench scraper or a spatula, gently peel up one of the long sides of the rectangle and begin rolling it as you would a jelly roll. Once the entire pastry is rolled upon itself until no pastry remains unrolled, a 24-30 inch long roll will remain. Gently pull the two ends of the roll together to form a circle or oval. Dabbing the ends of the pastry with water, join the ends together to close the circle. Gently transfer the ring to the parchment-lined baking sheet, or transfer the ring on the silicone baking mat to the baking sheet.
6. Brush the milk on top of the exposed pastry, then using a large sharp knife, make a cut in the top of the pastry every 2 inches to expose one layer of the roll. Spray a sheet of wax paper with cooking oil, then cover the cake and let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes like a warming drawer or an oven heated to 200F then turned off. Preheat oven to 350F (static) or 325F (convection).
7. Remove the wax paper from the cake and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool. While cooling, mix icing ingredients and drizzle over the cake. Sprinkle colored sugar on top of wet icing, alternating colors between each cut in the top of the cake. Once cooled, insert a pecan or toy baby into the underside of the cake to hide it. Serve when fully cooled.