Mardi Gras King Cake

Such a hot mess! My sweet friend Jenny's family hails from New Orleans, and every year during Mardi Gras her grandmother sends her a king cake from the famed Haydel's Bakery. So when she requested I post a king cake recipe here on Dixie Caviar, I was excited for the opportunity to impress.

Not one to allow me to fly blind, she brought this year's cake over for me to taste as inspiration. You see, there are hundreds of variations of king cakes, and everyone likes "theirs" best. So I needed to know what her ideal king cake was before I set about developing a recipe. (And Jenny, I have a strange suspicion you slipped that baby into my slice when I wasn't looking. I'm on to you!)

The dough was a wee bit dry, and not at all sweet like I expected. The cloying glaze though, overcompensated for the lack of sugar in the cake. I'm talking tooth-achingly sweet. Okay, well now I at least had the flavor profile to go off of. After pouring over recipes both online and in my massive library of Southern cookbooks, I found a recipe for the actual Haydel's Bakery recipe (well, so they said). At first, I thought I had hit gold, but after reading the recipe further I realized it was a train wreck. Had I not had an ounce of culinary training, the results would have probably resulted in epic failure. (And I don't handle failure in the kitchen very well. Trust me, it is not a pretty sight.)

Moving forward, I kept the basic flavorings the same as the Haydel's version and then adapted it to my favorite cinnamon roll recipe, which I know is delicious. The results seemed to work out perfectly. I also made a confectioners sugar glaze t0 add after the cake was baked, as opposed to Haydel's pure sugar topping, which was cooked directly into the dough. Another good choice if I do say so myself.

In the end, I loved my king cake in all of its trashy-looking glory. I think some people don't really know what to expect when they try it -- none of my coworkers had even heard of king cake before! And I live in Georgia! Get it together, folks.

Now as they say in N'awlins, "Laissez les bon temps rouler." Happy Fat Tuesday, everyone!

JENNY'S KING CAKE

Source: Nealey Dozier, inspired by Haydel's Bakery Serves 12

FOR THE DOUGH

1 cup milk 2 (1/4 ounce) packages active dry yeast 1/3 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup shortening (1/2 stick) 2 large eggs 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest 1/4 teaspoon almond flavor 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 4 cups all-purpose flour 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

FOR THE GLAZE

2 cups sifted confectioners sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice 2 to 3 tablespoons milk Splash of pure vanilla extract yellow, gold, and purple sprinkles

Microwave milk on high in 15 second increments until milk is just warmed to 120°F to 130°F (approximately 45 seconds to 1 minute and 15 seconds). Stir in yeast and allow to dissolve.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together sugar, salt, and shortening until fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, and continue mixing. Add lemon zest, almond, vanilla, and yeast mixture and continue beating. Lastly, add flour and beat on low until flour is absorbed and the dough is sticky, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. If dough is too wet, add more flour by tablespoonfuls until dough begins to form a ball and pulls away from the sides of bowl.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if sticky, about 8 minutes. Form into a ball. Lightly oil large bowl with nonstick spray. Transfer dough to bowl, turning to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then kitchen towel. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (Tip: Since it's winter and a little chilly, I tucked the bowl into the oven with the light turned on. Cozy, warm, and draft free.)

After the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll and shape it into an 18- x 10-inch rectangle. Spread the butter on the dough and top with the cinnamon sugar. Roll the dough, jellyroll fashion, starting from a long side.  Place the dough roll seam side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Wrap the roll around a greased can (I used a can of black beans). Bring the ends together to form a ring, moistening with milk and pinching edges together to seal. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 30 minutes or until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 375°.

Once the dough has had its second rise, place in the oven, uncovered. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until light golden brown (mine was still just a tad doughy in the very center when I removed it, but I like it that way. Call me crazy.)

FOR THE GLAZE:

Beat together confectioners sugar, lemon juice, milk, and vanilla, adding more milk in teaspoon increments as necessary. Drizzle the glaze over the cooked king cake, then immediately coat with colored sprinkles. (The glaze dries very quickly. I found that dipping my fingers in a small bowl of milk and re-wetting the glaze helped the sprinkles to stick better.)