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Kitchen Mailbox: King Cake long-standing part of Mardi Gras

Thursday, February 22, 2001

By Arlene Burnett, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You might say that the carnival season, including Mardi Gras, is the big blast before the big fast.

Clockwise from top left: braided King Cake, King Cake filled with Cream Cheese and Cherries (no recipe), New Orleans King Cake, Cinnamon King Cake. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

It's when New Orleans drapes itself in the spectacular colors of Mardi Gras -- purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power). It's the time for parades, masked balls, thousands of people garbed in lavish feathered or beaded costumes and dancing in the streets. And eating and drinking, and eating and drinking.

Carnival season always begins Jan. 6, which is Twelfth Night or Kings' Day (Jan. 6 is 12 days after Christmas, the day the Magi reached Bethlehem) and ends at midnight on Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is just one day -- the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which this year begins Feb. 28. That gives you six days to delve into the making of the King (also called King's or Kings') Cake.

A brief history:

Carnival can be traced to pre-Christian celebrations, which for the most part, were agricultural celebrations. The Roman Saturnalia, held in honor of Saturn, celebrated the sowing of the seeds for the coming year. The Greek festival Cronia corresponded to the Roman Saturnalia. Agriculture celebrations continued into the early medieval period.

The Christian Church in Rome allowed the celebrations to continue but added Christian meanings to the festivals. The celebrations spread to Spain, Portugal and France.

Opinions vary on King Cake. Some say it's named after the Three Kings, while others call it the Epiphany Cake, marking the coming of the Three Wise Men to visit Jesus.

The cake was traditionally served on Little Christmas or Kings' Day, both names for the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. By the Middle Ages veneration of the three Wise Men had spread throughout Europe and the cake was baked in honor of the Magi.

France usually gets credit for originating the gateau des rois or du roi or "king cake" in the first half of the 16th century. The French hid a bean, pecan or -- at the highest level of society -- a gold coin inside the cake.

In the early 1700s, New Orleans under French rule began celebrating with pre-Lenten balls. The balls were banned in the late 1700s but reinstated by the early 1800s.

Cooking term
of the week

Flambe -- To ignite foods that have been sprinkled with liquor such as Bananas Foster and Cherries Jubilee. Flambe is from the French word meaning "flaming" or "flamed."


Today, cities all over the world celebrate carnival. In this country, the most popular and well known carnival is in New Orleans. And the one food item you'll find everywhere, from homes to offices, is the King Cake.

The King Cake is not a cake at all, but a sweet oval-shaped yeast pastry, or bread. King Cakes are decorated with the colors of the Mardi Gras with either colored sugars or icing. Traditionally, it still contains a small plastic baby -- symbolic of the Baby Jesus -- and, according to modern custom, the person who finds the baby must supply the next King Cake.

In other cultures the baby can still be replaced with a coin, bean, pea or pecan. In medieval France, the coin finder was expected to make a contribution to a worthy cause. In other parts of Europe, those who found the bean and pea were king and queen for the day.

Traditionally, the "prize" is placed inside the bread dough before it's baked, but we inserted ours into the bottom of the bread after it came out of the oven.

Traditional King Cakes are similar to brioche with just a sprinkling of colored sugars. But cakes filled with cream cheese, fruit and other flavorings are becoming popular.


Everybody has a slightly different take on King Cake.

Marilyn Honsperger of Verona requested a recipe for King Cake. We tested three different versions.

Recipe contributors included Lenny Stevenson of Butler, Mary Hitt of Murrysville and Ruth E. McGrath of Highland Park.

King Cake usually comes with symbolic tokens inside, beans, plastic babies or, in some cultures, coins. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

As with all yeast breads, the time-consuming part is the kneading. Our dough hook came in handy, cutting the kneading time in half.

If you want to make King Cake but don't want to fuss with creating the colored sugars, we found them at Sugar and Spice Cake and Candy Supplies, 5200 Clairton Blvd. 412-882-7326.

In addition, the King Arthur Flour Co. has a King Cake package, complete with flour, almond paste, glaze and the three sugars for $12.95 plus shipping. Call 800-827-6836

King Cake

This recipe was sent in by Lenny Stevenson of Butler.

16 ounce carton sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115) degrees
2 large eggs
6 to 6 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/3 cup butter or margarine
Colored Frostings
Colored Sugars

Combine first four ingredients in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cool to 105 to 115 degrees.

Combine yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and warm water in a 1-cup liquid measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes. Combine yeast mixture, sour cream mixture, eggs and 2 cups flour in a large mixing bowl; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer 2 minutes or until smooth. Gradually stir in 3 cups flour to make a soft dough.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface, and gradually knead in remaining 1 to 1 1/2 cups flour; knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes).

Place dough in a well greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees) free from drafts, 50 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Combine 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon; set aside. Punch dough down; divide in half. Place 1 portion of dough on a floured surface; roll into a 27-by-10-inch rectangle. Spread half each of butter and cinnamon mixture on dough. Roll dough jelly roll style starting at long side, and pinch seam to seal.

Gently place dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Shape into an oval ring moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Repeat procedure with remaining dough, butter and cinnamon mixture. Decorate cakes with bands of colored frosting and sprinkle with colored sugars. Makes 2 cakes

Colored Frostings

3 cups sifted powdered sugar
3 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
3 to 5 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 or 2 drops each of green, yellow, red and blue liquid food coloring

Combine powdered sugar and butter. Add milk to reach desired consistency for drizzling; stir in vanilla. Divide frosting into 3 batches, tinting one green and one yellow; combine red and blue food coloring for purple frosting. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Colored Sugars

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 or 2 drops each of green, yellow, red and blue food coloring

Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1 drop green food coloring in a jar. Place lid on jar, and shake vigorously to evenly mix color with sugar. Repeat procedure with 1/2 cup sugar and yellow food coloring. For purple, combine 1 or 2 drops red food coloring and 1 drop blue food coloring before adding to 1/2 cup sugar.

Yield: 1/2 cup each.

"Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook," compiled by Julie Fisher Gunger with forward by Kaye Mabry Adams

New Orleans King Cake

The recipe from Pat Baldrige of the Morning Advocate and State Times, Baton Rouge, La., appeared in the 1984 "Food Editors' Hometown Favorites Cookbook," edited by Barbara Biggs Ostmann and Jane Baker. It was submitted by Mary Hitt of Murrysville.

2 packages active dry yeast
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup lukewarm water
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 dried bean or pecan half, or small plastic baby
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
Additional butter for top of cake
Sugar, tinted green, yellow and purple, about 4 tablespoons of each color

Sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar over lukewarm water. Let soften. Stir, then let sit about 1 minute until light and bubbly. Mix 3 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, salt and nutmeg well. Add yeast mixture, milk and lemon peel. Work mixture together well. An electric mixer is fine for this.

Add egg yolks and beat in well. Work in 1/2 cup butter and continue to beat until butter is incorporated and mixture is smooth.

Either change to a mixer dough hook, or turn dough out on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, working in remaining 1 cup flour gradually. Dough should not be sticky. Form dough into a ball.

Butter a bowl with 1 tablespoon butter; place ball of dough in bowl and turn to coat all sides. Cover with a towel, put in a draft-free place and let rest until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Brush baking sheet with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Turn dough out on floured board and form into a roll about 14 or 15 inches long. Put roll on prepared baking sheet and form into a ring shape, pressing ends together to seal. Cover with towel and put in draft-free warm place to rise until double in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Brush top of cake with egg milk wash. Bake in middle of a preheated 375 degree oven until brown, about 25 minutes. Slide cake onto wire rack to cool.

Butter top of cooled cake. Spread colored sugars over top of cake.

For colored sugars
1 drop of food coloring
4 tablespoons sugar

Add food coloring to sugar and mix until sugar is evenly colored and brightly tinted.

Note: To make a braided king cake, take the 15-inch log of dough and slice in half lengthwise. Place logs side by side and gently braid. Form braid into an oval shape. Continue with recipe.

King Cake

This was shared by Ruth E. McGrath of Highland Park. She found it on the Internet.

1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 - 4 1/2 cups flour, unsifted
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 cup warm milk
5 egg yolks
1 stick butter cut into slices and softened, plus 2 tablespoons more softened butter
1 egg, slightly beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 plastic baby doll

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, or until yeast bubbles up and mixture almost doubles in volume.

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, slowly 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 a lightly floured surface and knead like bread. While kneading, sprinkle up to 1 cup more of flour (1 tablespoon at a time) over the dough.

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 moderately thick kitchen towel and place in a draft-free spot for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough doubles in volume. Using a pastry brush, coat a large baking sheet with one tablespoon of butter and set aside. Remove dough from bowl and place on lightly floured surface.

Using your fist, punch dough down forcefully. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top, pat and shake dough into a cylinder. Twist dough to form a curled cylinder and loop cylinder onto the buttered baking sheet. Pinch the ends together to complete the circle.

Cover dough with towel and set it in draft-free spot for 45 minutes, or until the circle of dough doubles in volume. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash and bake on middle rack of oven for 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown. Place cake on wire rack to cool. If desired, you can hide the plastic baby in the cake at this time.

Colored sugars

Green, purple and yellow paste

Take 12 tablespoons sugar. Squeeze a dot of green paste in palm of hand. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over the paste and rub together quickly. Place this mixture on wax paper and wash hands to remove color. Repeat process for other 2 colors. Place aside.

3 cups confectioners sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 - 6 tablespoons water

Combine sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons water until smooth. If icing is too stiff, add more water until spreadable. Spread icing over top of cake. Immediately sprinkle the colored sugars in individual rows consisting of about 2 rows of green, purple and yellow.

Note: We found the plastic babies at Michael's Arts and Crafts, 4000 Oxford Drive, Bethel Park. Just a reminder: We placed the plastic babies inside the breads after they were finished baking.

If you want to answer a recipe request from a reader or are looking for a recipe yourself, please write to Kitchen Mailbox, c/o Arlene Burnett, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222, or e-mail to aburnett@post-gazette.com. Please include a name, neighborhood and a daytime phone number on all correspondence. All recipes are kitchen-tested by the Post-Gazette.

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