Beck is back from New Orleans, where she didn't crash the 15-person van. Yay, Beck! We knew you could do it!
Perhaps Becky will tell you all about her trip soon (well, about the food at least), but in the meantime, I'll tell you about the New Orleans treat I cooked up while she was gone: A Mardi Gras King Cake.
Did you know that King Cake is basically a giant cinnamon roll?!
Yeah, I didn't either! But it's actually even better than a giant cinnamon roll because it's got confetti-colored sugar on top, and a little baby king inside.
A naked baby king, if you go to the same party store I did.
...But I guess that's neither here nor there. Let's just not think about the naked baby inside the cake, okay?
Confetti-colored sugar and plastic baby aside, there's another reason I like King Cake more than cinnamon rolls: it's a treat that's meant to be shared. The tradition states that whoever gets the baby in their slice must host the Mardi Gras gathering or bring the King Cake the following year. The very cake sets up the expectation that you'll share in this celebratory meal - and therefore in each other's company - in the year to come.
Good food and good company: two things that will make anyone feel like a king.
A note about the recipe for those of you as scared of using yeast as I am - it's not as hard as it looks. Make sure you have a warm place for the dough to rise and a little patience, and you're set. Mardi Gras is all about turning the world topsy-turvy, after all; perhaps it's time to throw your old baking habits out the window and try something new. And hey, even if the cake doesn't rise correctly, you still get to make it pretty with green, purple, and yellow sugar. And a naked baby.
Scald milk, remove from heat and stir in butter. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1 tablespoon of the white sugar. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.*
When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the egg. Stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and nutmeg. Beat the flour into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. When risen, punch down.
Preheat oven to 335 degrees F. Grease cookie sheet or line with parchment paper.
To Make Filling: Beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth. In another bowl, combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, 1/2 cup flour, and melted butter and mix until crumbly.**
Roll dough into large rectangle (approximately 10x16 inches). Using an offset spatula or spoon, spread cream cheese mixture in a thin layer over dough to within 1/2 inch of long edges, all the way to short edges. Sprinkle cinnamon mixture over the cream cheese and spread evenly.
Roll up dough tightly like a jelly roll, beginning on a long side. Bring the ends of roll together to form an oval shaped ring. Place ring on prepared cookie sheet. Grease a small oven-proof bowl or ramekin and place in center to help maintain center hole while cake rises and bakes. Cover cake with plastic wrap or tea towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until top is golden brown.
Transfer cake to wire rack. While cake is still warm, push baby into bottom of cake, and frost. Sprinkle with colored sugar.
*If using instant yeast, omit proofing step and instead just add water to milk mixture, and add yeast with flour.
**For a different flavor, try using canned pie filling in place of the cinnamon brown sugar mixture.
On yeast: I am by no means a yeast expert (I can count on one hand the number of recipes I've tried involving yeast). What I do know is that keeping the dough warm while it rises is essential. I have found that the best method for me is turning on the oven and letting the dough sit on the stovetop.