You know it’s Mardi Gras time in Houston when you start seeing King Cakes pop up in bakeries and stores around town. King Cake is a traditional pastry meant to honor the three kings who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus. An authentic king cake includes cinnamon swirls with the colors of Mardi Gras sprinkled top, and would you believe it’s not all that hard to make one for yourself!

“Purple signifies ‘justice,’ green signifies ‘faith’ and gold signifies ‘power,” says New Orleans native and baker Joanie Zisk. “Inside the King Cake is a plastic baby and traditionally, the person who gets the slice of cake with the baby has to bring the King Cake to the next party.”

Joanie Zisk is a Houston based recipe developer and creator of One Dish Kitchen, a place to find recipe ideas in single-serving sizes. Joanie is always in the kitchen and has a tradition of making King Cakes and sending them to her family.

“I have fond memories growing up in New Orleans and Mardi Gras has always been my favorite time of the year,” said Zisk. “Growing up, we would enjoy eating King Cakes all throughout the carnival season.”

Joanie developed a recipe for the traditional king cake and says her biggest tip is to allow yourself plenty of time to make it.

“The dough has to rise twice,” said Zisk. “Other than that, it’s an easy recipe and a delicious one as well.”

King Cake Cream Cheese

Here is the tested recipe Zisk developed:

Ingredients

Dough

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk (room temperature)
  • 2 small packets of active dry yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons of canola oil
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Cream Cheese Filling

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

Glaze

  • 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons milk

Sugar Topping

  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • A few drops of each: purple, green and yellow food coloring

Instructions

  1. In an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 1/3 cup granulated sugar, salt and melted butter until well creamed.
  2. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition and continue to cream.
  3. Pour the milk into a small bowl and add the packets of yeast. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes until dissolved. Set aside.
  4. Add in the vanilla, orange zest and lemon zest to the mixing bowl and blend.
  5. Pour in the the milk and dissolved yeast and blend.
  6. Add the flour and mix on low until the dough tightens. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball and climbs slightly up the dough hook.
  7. Remove the dough from the bowl. Coat the dough with the canola oil. Return the dough to the bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set in a warm, draft-free place, and let it rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
  8. While the dough is resting, mix your colored sugars. Place 1 cup of granulated sugar in a ziplock bag. Add in 2-3 drops of food coloring. Close the bag and shake and caress the sugar until it is completely colored. Add more food coloring if necessary. Repeat this process with each of the colors, using a separate ziplock bag for each. Set aside to use later.
  9. After the dough has rested, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough for 10 minutes.
  10. Roll the dough out into an oblong piece.
  11. Brush the dough with 2 tablespoons of canola oil covering the entire piece.
  12. In a small bowl, mix together 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar liberally over the entire piece of dough.
  13. Once the dough is covered with the cinnamon sugar and oil, fold it in half lengthwise.
  14. Cut the dough into 3 long strips and lay the strips side-by-side. Pinch the edges of the dough to seal. Now it's time to braid the dough.
    *Note: Braiding dough is just like braiding hair
  15. Grab the center of the right strand and cross it over the middle strand, drop it in the center.
  16. Grab your left strand and cross it over the middle strand.
  17. Repeat these steps until you have braided your dough to the very end. Pinch the ends together and form a circle with the dough.
  18. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
  19. Cover and allow the dough to rest again until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.
  20. Preheat the oven to 370 degrees F.
  21. While the dough is resting again, make the filling.
  22. Cream together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and lemon zest until smooth.
  23. Place the filling in a piping bag or scoop it into a large ziplock bag and cut off the corner tip of the bag.
  24. Pipe the filling directly on top of the dough.  Only go around the circle once, you may have some filling left over.
  25. Place the king cake in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the dough is golden brown.
  26. Remove from the oven and make the glaze.
  27. Whisk together 1 cup of the powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of the milk. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the King Cake.
  28. Sprinkle the three colored sugars on top of the King Cake alternating the colors.
  29. Slice and serve!

Rather not try baking on your own? There are several places around Houston where you can pick up a King Cake.

Three Brothers Bakery | French Riviera Bakery & Cafe | The Acadian Bakers | Rao's Bakery