There is nothing like the New Orleans King Cake. Like its medieval French ancestor the Galette des Rois, it is traditionally served on Epiphany or Kings Day, after the 12th night of Christmas. But in that beautiful way that New Orleans takes delicate french things and makes them its decadent own, NoLA serves this giant sugar-encrusted pastry from early January straight through Mardi Gras some six or so weeks later. The first months of any school year were a blur for my Captain as a child in New Orleans; one parent brought the Kings Day cake on Epiphany, and whichever child got the piece with the baby…his parents had cake duty for the next school day. New Orleans schoolkids are hopped up on sugar from Halloween clear through Ash Wednesday.
This is actually a great, easy coffee cake recipe for any time of year…the decorative sugar (and embedded baby or other “prize” if you dare) are what make it a King Cake.
Ingredients: two cans of crescent roll dough, 8 ounces cream cheese, powdered sugar, vanilla, one or two granny smith apples, cinnamon sugar, chopped pecans, and a little milk and decorative sugars if you’re going for the fully decorated version. The purple, gold, and green sugars can be purchased at cake decorating suppliers like Michaels, or you can make them with coarse sugar (not typical table sugar…it will clump) and food coloring in small ziploc bags.
After setting the oven to preheat to 350, open the cans of dough and separate the individual triangles. Lay them out in a pan or dish with the points hanging over the edge, overlapping points in the middle, and use several pieces to fill in the bottom as shown. I adapted this recipe from one in a magazine; they used a perfectly round 11-inch pastry dish and they made this exquisitely uniform, symmetrical, decoratively perfect. We’re on a boat and I have a rectangular cake pan…we are going to be more “rustic.”
Mix 8 ounces softened cream cheese with 2/3 cup powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla; spread in center of pastry.
Peel, core, and slice thinly the apples and spread them across the cream cheese. Sprinkle with about a tablespoon of cinnamon sugar.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup or so of chopped pecans over the apples.
Fold the outer triangles in toward the center, turning the points under in the middle to make a ring, and sealing edges together toward the outer edge as best you can, to keep filling inside. Again, this was impressively flawless in the magazine version…it’ll taste good anyway! If you are going New Orleans authentic, embed a plastic or similar baby or other small figurine into the outer edge of the ring before folding over one triangle. Wrap it in foil if you are concerned about its heat tolerance or food-worthiness. Whomever gets the baby gets good luck! Or buys drinks. Or swabs the deck. Captain’s rules on a maritime Mardi Gras!
After 20-25 minutes in a 350 oven, it is lovely, no? Stop here if you are just after coffee cake.
For King Cake, make a glaze with about 2 tablespoons milk and 1/4 cup powdered sugar. Spread this over the top of the cake, covering as much of the exposed pastry as completely as possible to allow sugars to adhere. Sprinkle Crescent-City-liberally (Big Easily?) with purple, gold, and green sugars — the Mardi Gras colors for justice, power, and faith.