The Homemade King Cake Recipe (with the One Weird Ingredient) That’ll Knock Your Socks Off!

The Best Homemade King Cake Recipe

A few years ago, I set out on a quest to make a homemade king cake that would rival the ones we pay $20+ for at bakeries around town. (Though if cooking is not your jam and you simply want to buy a fabulous king cake, we have 10 unique New Orleans king cakes to suggest.)

There’s no shortage of king cake recipes online — but if you’re used to real New Orleans style king cakes, most of those won’t fit the bill. I lost count along the way, but I tried no less than a dozen recipes, including ones purportedly from famous local bakeries. All of them came up short somehow.

Sometimes they tasted pretty good, but the texture was off. I don’t want a dry, crumbly king cake like the kind you’d find at a big box grocery store. (No offense, big box grocery stores.)

Sometimes the flavor was just not right — “glorified cinnamon roll” came to mind. And as any true NOLA king cake lover can tell you, king cake is NOT just a glorified cinnamon roll. (Although our kids rave about this kid-friendly, cinnamon roll king cake recipe.) There’s even something uniquely “king cakey” about the smell. I knew I had to find that.

Many times, the outside of the king cake baked up into a golden brown shell, almost like the crust on a loaf of bread. Definitely not what I was looking for. I wanted a pillowy soft texture throughout the king cake, and I wanted it to STAY soft. 

Even the icing was sometimes lacking. Usually it was so sugary and hard once it was set that it would chip off the king cake when I would cut into it. I was looking for a creamier icing that would stay soft even a few days later. 

After many (many, many, many) tries, I finally came up with a recipe of my own based on the things I’d found most appealing from others I’d made. It’s not necessarily how the famous bakeries make theirs, but it tastes pretty dang close! I’ve included an option for a cream cheese filling in this recipe since it’s my family’s favorite, but feel free to try other fillings on your own. (I cannot say whether this recipe would work well with gluten-free or vegan options, but if you try those out, please let me know how you liked them!)

Now I wish I could tell you this is a quick and easy kid-friendly recipe, but… not so much. (Though if you want a quick and easy recipe to make with the kiddos, try this or this!) But if you’ve got a little time, I’ve got a really great king cake recipe for you! It will get you in the Mardi Gras spirit.

Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients or the steps; they’re plentiful but not at all complicated. And they’re all in there for a reason — the scalding of the milk, for example, helps to make the king cake extra fluffy. All those extracts? THEY are what set this king cake apart from being just a “glorified cinnamon roll.” The corn syrup in the icing? Keeps the icing from hardening to the point of cracking. And that crazy ingredient in the list? I believe it’s what helps give it that bakery-style texture, so don’t leave it out!

If you’re looking to make a homemade king cake, I promise this is one worth trying!

best homemade king cake recipe
I forgot the recipe makes TWO king cakes and I made one GIGANTIC one instead! Note the missing piece my taste tester snagged before I could snap a pic!

Copycat New Orleans Bakery-Style King Cake

Makes 2 authentic New Orleans King Cakes

For the Cake:

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup butter
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 packets instant yeast
  • 7 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon extract
  • ¼ teaspoon orange extract
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon butter extract

For the Cinnamon Sugar Filling:

  • 1/3 cup butter, softened to room temperature (not melted)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon

For the (Optional) Cream Cheese Filling:

  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened

For the Icing:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4½ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ cup milk, room temperature
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla OR almond extract (or combine ½ teaspoon of each)
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup

For the (Optional) Decorations:

Purple, green & yellow colored sugar (I like to color my own sugar using gel food coloring — make a few cups of each color in case you want to make more king cakes later!)

Sprinkles

Plastic king cake baby

To make the cake itself:

HAVE ALL YOUR INGREDIENTS MEASURED AND READY TO GO!

The first step is scalding the milk. It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds! Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add the milk. Cook until the edges begin to foam and froth, but do not allow it to boil. It only takes about 4 or 5 minutes, so watch it carefully. There will be a little layer like a “skin” across the top. (Appetizing, I know.)

Remove from heat. I like to pour it into a mixing bowl to prevent the rest of the ingredients from sticking to the hot saucepan and so it cools down faster. Add the sugar, butter, mashed potato flakes, and salt. 

Stir thoroughly until the butter is completely melted and allow to cool to lukewarm. I use a candy thermometer to make sure it cools to about 115 degrees. Remember, if the mix is too warm, it may kill the yeast and your king cake won’t rise. Patience is key here!

In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the extracts.

Add the yeast to the milk mixture, stir well. Then add in the egg mixture, stirring until it’s uniform.

Place the flour and cinnamon in the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with a dough hook.

Pour the milk mixture into the flour and mix on medium speed until the dough has come together, but is still soft. Sometimes I only use 6- 6½ cups of flour. (I start with 6 cups and have the last cup on the side, adding more as necessary.) This is not like bread dough, it is a much stickier dough. Be sure to scrape the bowl and mix again to incorporate all the flour. 

Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and place your dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean, dry towel. Set in a warm place and let your dough rise for one hour.

In the meantime, make the cinnamon filling: In a small bowl, mix sugar and cinnamon. Keep your butter separate.

If you are using cream cheese filling, make it now: Blend the softened cream cheese and the powdered sugar until creamy. Spoon it into a pastry bag or a Ziploc and set aside.

Once the dough has risen, push down and divide dough into 2 parts. Each portion will be a king cake — remember, this recipe makes 2 king cakes!

Divide each king cake portion into 3 parts (for the braid). If you’d rather do a twist than a braid, split each king cake portion into 2 parts.

Place dough onto lightly floured surface and roll out one portion at a time to ½” thickness and butter the surface of the dough with a bit of the softened butter. (I like to portion out my butter — I cut it into 6 equal parts for my 6 braid strips and spread each strip with a portion of butter.)

Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar.

Roll up along the long side; pinch seam to seal. Stretch into a thick rope. Repeat with other dough parts.

Next, braid 3 strips of dough rope together. (You can probably find videos online that explain how to do this part better than I can!) Line up the three strips next to each other – starting with the left, cross over the middle strip. Next take the right strip and cross it over the middle strip (which was originally the left strip). Continue this pattern until you get to the end. 

When you get to the end, transfer each king cake braid to its own parchment paper lined baking sheet and form the braid into an oval. Pinch all ends together – I try to shape it so that the oval is one solid braid.

If you’d like to color your king cake prior to baking, now’s the time to sprinkle it with your purple, green, and yellow colored sugars in alternating sections. (We will frost over this with white icing afterwards, so feel free to skip this step.)

If using cream cheese (or another type of) filling, pipe it into the recesses of the braid.

Cover the king cakes with saran wrap or a clean, dry towel and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size. 

Bake at 350 until golden brown, 15-20 min. 

Allow the cake to cool completely before frosting. 

If you want to have a king cake baby in your cake, stick it somewhere underneath the cooled cake prior to frosting. 

To make the icing: In a large microwavable measuring cup/bowl with spout, melt the butter. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until creamy. It will start to set pretty quickly, so I wait until my king cake is completely cool before I make the icing so I can use it right away.

Spread over cake and decorate with your choice of sprinkles. 

Enjoy!

Joey is a New Orleans native, Dominican alum, and LSU grad who joined the ranks of motherhood in the summer of 2019. She and her Colorado born-and-raised husband, Phil, left their Mid-City apartment for a house on the Northshore about ten days before they welcomed their son, Sam, into the world. And 19 months later, their daughter Sloane joined their family, thrusting them into the #2under2 life. Though she’s always had a passion for writing, it’s her work in whole-home generator sales that pays the bills. She’s a longtime member of the dance troupe The Muff-A-Lottas and when she isn’t covered in glitter and dancing through the streets of New Orleans, she’s usually cooking, trying new restaurants, and listening to true crime podcasts. A consummate Pinterest fanatic, she’s always looking for her next DIY project or recipe to try. She believes good senses of humor and random acts of kindness make the world go ‘round.

20 COMMENTS

    • Hi Katherine! If you have a food processor, you could start mixing it in that until it comes together and is ready for you to knead it by hand. And though it’ll take a bit more time and elbow grease, you can totally mix this by hand if you don’t have a good processor. It’s a very sticky dough, so get ready to get a little messy! Happy baking!

  1. I see orange, vanilla,lemon and butter extract but the detailed recipe only calls form vanilla or almond extract. Where are the other extracts used?

    • Hi Amanda! The step where you beat the eggs is when you’d add in the 4 extracts. Were you maybe referring to the vanilla and/or almond extract step for the icing?

  2. For anyone curious, I divided the recipe to just make 1 and it came out great.
    Joey, thanks for posting this. I would love a little more instruction on how long and wide to roll the pieces to make the braid- for next time! My shape needed some work 😂. I guess it was too short and out of balance but honestly I thought it was still beautiful and tasted so great! Can’t buy ‘em like this is South Carolina!

    • Colleen, thank you so much for halving that recipe — I’ve been meaning to do it for ages and never think of it! It’s hard to explain the thickness/length of the rope pieces since I just kind of eyeball it. Maaaaybe say about a foot and a half long and about an inch and a half thick?

  3. Hi!
    I’ve made this twice. We can’t get enough of it. It is the PERFECT king cake. It does take a while, so I was wondering if there is anything I can do in advance? Like make the dough and leave it overnight? I’m not sure if that works with the yeast and such. A baker I am not. Thanks for your help!

    • Hi Lauren! I’m so glad you loved the recipe! While I haven’t tried it myself with this recipe, I have made cinnamon rolls before that can be wrapped tightly in Saran Wrap after it’s fully risen and refrigerated overnight. Not sure if it would affect the outcome of the king cake though. But as far as leaving the dough out to rise overnight, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Sorry I’m not more helpful!

  4. This recipe is amazing! I actually made 4 medium sized king cakes out of the recipe as written. I also was able to freeze half the dough and do the assembly, final rise, and bake and it turned out perfect, too. So well done, Joey!

    • Christina, thank you so, so much! This is wonderful information to have and will definitely help others in the future! So exciting to see my friends enjoying my recipe!

    • Hey Christina-can you walk me through what you did for freezing half? Did you freeze the ball of dough and then let it come to room temp and then fill it/braid it/etc? Or did you fill and braid before freezing? How long did it take to thaw? Thanks!

  5. Hi! This recipe looks great but every time so try to bake something at higher altitudes it just doesn’t come out right. Do you have any suggestions for baking this at high altitude?

    • Hi Gavin! Unfortunately, since I am born and raised in the New Orleans area, I have zero experience baking at higher altitudes. I am so sorry I’m no help here!

    • Hi Gavin,
      I’m from south Louisiana and live outside Denver now, altitude ~6,000 feet and have been experimenting with baking for a few years. For this recipe I did 1.5 packets of yeast, a couple tablespoons less milk, all 7 cups of flour, and baked at 375 until it looked done. The risings happened faster than an hour, pay attention to the volume and not the clock. Hope this helps you!

      • Just used this recipe with the high altitude modifications (I’m in Albuquerque) and it worked out really well! Delicious recipe! I did have to bake it for about 30 minutes though.

        • This is great to hear, thanks for sharing! I have family in Colorado, so I know they’ll appreciate the high-altitude directions!

  6. This recipe is now going to be a yearly tradition in our house…it is that delicious. It is pretty close to perfection and I will choose baking this over buying my favorite New Orleans king cake in the future.

  7. What a great recipe, thanks for sharing it! If it helps others, you can put the dough in the fridge or freezer after the initial rise. That should help the timing if starting in advance, and then also a sticky dough is easier to work with when it’s cold. You just may need a longer second rise, perhaps an hour and a half, to get it ready to bake. Another way to speed up the second rise is to put it in a slightly warm oven.

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