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.
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. 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!
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!
Copycat New Orleans Bakery-Style King Cake
Makes 2 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!)
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.