Baking King Cake, Reflecting on Recipes

savory king cake

My take on King Cake, seasoned with thyme and marjoram, liberally studded with Gruyere, sprinkled with Parmesan instead of sugar but maybe next year I'll dye the cheese in the classic icing colors: green, yellow and purple

The classic King Cake of carnival season has many variations: coffee cake-ish, briochelike, or based on puff pastry. It may or may not include embellishments like candied fruit, frangipane, and colored icing. It may even be chocolate with coconut. But one thing will be for sure: it’ll be sweet.

Not around here. At this time of year I’m still recovering from the holiday cookie binge, and the idea of more of the same doesn’t hold much of a thrill. Yet I’ve always loved the idea of the thing, so our traditional King Cake is basically cheese studded brioche. Traditional tradition is honored in the ring shape and in the hidden token whose finder is the King.

Being King has its downside; it usually means you have to provide the next cake or throw the next party, which may come as soon as next week. (See the Wikipedia entry for an extensive exegesis of King Cake in its many, many manifestations.)

Savory King Cake

This recipe makes two roughly 10 inch rings because one very large one doesn’t always cook quickly enough. If you don’t need two you can freeze one and have it handy in case you wind up being King next time. It’s very simple and quick to make as far as working time goes. Just be sure to allow for the overnight cool rise.

mardi gras king cakes that aren't sweet

What a difference an oven makes. I have two in my vintage stove, ovens in which these cakes were baked at the (theoretically) same temperature for the same amount of time. The paler one was in the little oven, the darker one in the bigger oven which I know full well runs hot and try to compensate for.

½ c. lukewarm water

1 tbl. dry yeast

1 egg

3 egg yolks

grated zest of 1 large lemon

3/4 tsp. dried thyme, crumbled

scant ½ tsp. dried marjoram, crumbled

1 tsp. salt

1 c. light cream or half and half

4-5 c. bread flour

4 oz. softened butter

6 oz. Gruyere or other nutty flavored hard cheese, cut into ¼ inch cubes

(1/2 c. chopped duck cracklings or crisp bacon, optional)

2 large dried beans, figurines or, so nobody breaks a tooth, large garlic cloves

1 c. coarsely chopped raw cashews, spread on a plate

1 egg, beaten with

1 tsp. lemon juice


coarse salt

1. Put the water in a large mixing bowl –  a stand mixer is ideal – sprinkle on the yeast and let it sit 10 minutes or so to foam. When it’s bubbly, whisk in everything else up to the flour.

2. Let the mixture sit a moment, then whisk in 2 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time.

3. Add the butter. Switch to a paddle or wooden spoon and work it in completely, then work in enough additional flour to make a very soft, still sticky dough. This may take anywhere from 1 to 2 cups, depending on the size of the eggs, the moisture content of the butter and placement of constellations in the heavens above. The dough is ready as soon as it (more or less) leaves the sides of the bowl.

4. Scrape the dough into a rough ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and set it aside in a warm place until doubled, about 1.5 hours.

5. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board and sparingly, a little at a time, knead in enough additional flour to make a smooth soft dough that is not sticky. Put it in a clean bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

6. Punch down the dough; turn it onto a very lightly floured work surface and let it relax, covered, for ten minutes or so. Roll it out about ¼ inch thick, scatter on the cheese dice (and meat) and press them in. Roll up tightly like a jelly roll; fold into a ball, knead to further distribute the lumps and again let rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

7. Divide the dough in half. Roll one half into a snake about 18 inches long, then coil it into a ring, pinching and pressing to join the ends firmly. Insert a token (from the underside) and press the ring firmly into the cashews to embed them in the base. Transfer to a lightly greased or parchment covered baking sheet. If you have room to bake two rings at once, repeat with the other half of the dough. If not, cover the other half, set aside in a cool place, then shape it when the first half goes into the oven.

8. Lightly cover the ring(s) with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise to not quite double, 1 to 1.5 hours. Heat the oven to 375.

9. Brush the ring(s) with the egg wash, grate on a liberal dusting of Parmesan and sprinkle sparingly with the salt. Bake until risen and well browned, half an hour to 45 minutes. It’s done at 190 degrees internal temperature (let’s hear it for instant read thermometers!), so start checking after a half hour. Cool on a rack and serve in thin slices.

savory king cake sliced

The cheese coated holes make the cake seem light, but it's still tastiest to keep the slices on the thin side.

Concerning Recipes.

This bread in cake’s clothing is from one of my Good Food columns, now lost somewhere deep in history. I have the recipe only because I used it in The Modern Country Cook, itself now somewhat historical, having come out in 1991. The ingredients haven’t changed much but the instructions are a lot more streamlined.

I haven’t done any research but wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn this paring down is happening all over. For instance:

I’m currently in the middle of making a sort of bastard* Cassoulet, and as this is something I seldom do I turned for guidance to The Food of South-West France, by Paula Wolfert, a wonderful book when it came out (1983) and still a model of its kind.

Its kind is extremely thorough, however, so I also checked around elsewhere. Most of the elsewhere in my bookshelf was either equally thorough or not thorough enough, but when I looked again, there was Paula Wolfert’s World of Food (1988).

The Cassoulet recipe in that one is slightly shorter and easier to follow-while-modifying. Down it went to the kitchen. Then today (this is one of those recipes that takes at least 2 days and can easily be stretched out even longer) I was standing here at the computer trying to avoid work…

First recipe to pop up? Paula Wolfert’s, this time from Food and Wine Magazine in 2005. Considerably less involved, though still a bit of a production, and that’s the one down in the kitchen at the moment.

*Bastard may be a bit strong, this batch does involve multiple cookings and multiple meats (including plenty of duck confit), so perhaps it’s as legitimate as any named for someplace in the French countryside. To quote Elizabeth David:

“The Cassoulet is a dish which may be infinitely varied so long as it is not made into a mockery with a sausage or two heated up with tinned beans, or with all sorts of bits of left-over chicken or goodness knows what thrown into it as if it were a dustbin.” (French Provincial Cooking, 1960. Of course I looked. Are you kidding?)

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  • Hi there! Has your recipe-writing changed? I wish I could change all recipe writing and turn it into something akin to the British model, much more easy going, much more encouraging, much more forgiving. I try to say over and over Mediterranean recipes especially are not cast in stone, or even in bronze which, unlike stone, can be melted down and rewritten. And also: one cook’s authentic and indisputable is another cook’s bastardization (inspired by your post above).
    However, the king cake: The king cake may have morphed in the U.S. into a pre-Lenten cake but in origin it’s a cake for the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6th, aka Epiphany, aka in Italian La Befana (say Epifania very fast and you get the origin of that word). In France, which is the only place I’ve encountered le gateau des rois it is in my experience always a sweet cake and, most importantly, it always has buried in the dough a tiny porcelain image of a king (not so tiny that it could be inadvertently swallowed however). It comes from the bakery with a gold paper crown and the person who gets the king also gets to wear the crown for the rest of the evening (often, by curious happenstance, it turns out to be the youngest at the table) and also, I’m told, gets to purchase the gateau the following year, by which point presumably the youngest will have saved up sufficient sous to be able to buy a cake for the family.
    File this under thoughts from California early in the morning.

    Hi Nancy,

    and thanks for the King Cake thoughts. The wiki article linked in the post is a lot more lattitudinous and international, whether rightly or wrongly I don’t know, but it does mention the paper crown, an suggestion I’ll act on next year.

    As for the recipe writing, I’m not just talking about meeting guidelines from assorted publications – worst offenders in the rigidity department – but also about what I guess might be called communication in our time. My earliest recipe writing was more conversational than it is now (although it’s still a lot more conversational than the industry standard), and I’ve never wavered from encouragement to be relaxed about the effing teaspoons and tablespoons as well as ingredient lists. But I’m taking a lot more for granted these days about readers’ knowledge of ingredients, techniques etc. and that has had the effect of making the recipes shorter. Shorter than my previous, that is, not shorter in general. Haven’t gone to the bookcase to see if the same is true of you but as I’m conversing with the source, is it?

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    This is a splendid variation on the King Cake. In fact, I would vote for it as the standard (though that’s probably heresy . . .). I commend Leslie’s version to all!

    Hi Sue,
    To call this standard IS heresy (see Nancy’s comment), but what the heck.

  • PJ Hamel Said,

    My recipe writing has changed to reflect people’s short attention span – recently reported as devolving from 12 minutes in 1971, to 6 seconds today. I find people appreciate step photos more than they do involved explanations… I now try to present a whole recipe “experience,” rather than relying on only the written word.

    You know, I still have many of your Good Food columns pasted in my recipe scrapbook! Soooo good.

    Hi PJ,
    VERY long time not in touch, but I have fond memories from the Herald and send kudos for your current doings.
    Thanks so much for your observations about recipe…what? Recipe sharing? Recipe presentation? Not sure what the word should be.
    Information is transmitted when the recipe is short and visual, probably even more successfully than when the words must stand alone (picture worth a thousand of ’em and all), but if the written word is no longer the primary means of communication, when does it cease to be writing? Seems like a short, slippery slope from pictured steps to video, and then where are we?

  • Editor B Said,

    I got the baby last week so I was on the hook to bring a king cake to the office this week. Today I baked your recipe (with Manchego instead of Gruyere) and damn if it ain’t delicious. I plan to blow some minds on campus Tuesday.

    Go for it, Editor B! Weekly king cake = livin’ in or at least near New Orleans, so my guess is that the minds will indeed be blown. I don’t suppose you went for the colored Parmesan, by any chance???

  • Editor B Said,

    No, I did not dye the Parmesan. I was tempted but a-feared the mental association with more candyesque flavors might be off-putting. You know what I mean? We don’t tend to color savory treats the way we do sweet ones, and I’m already shocking the palate.

    Anyhow you can see a photo here if you’re curious.

    Not as beautiful as yours but I’m learning. And it is quite tasty. Reviews from my co-workers are positive so far.

    Good reviews from eaters are what really matter! And actually, it looks very nice. (Hope Crybaby is feeling better by now).

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