A Taste of New Orleans in Del Ray
When I found out my friend Jen was making 20 (yes, 20!) king cakes for her Twelfth Night party, I knew this was a DIY endeavor I needed to see. Jen and her husband Art have hosted a Twelfth Night party for years. What started as a small get-together with friends has evolved into a large gathering and a whole lot of king cakes.
Twelfth Night is about family and Jen extends an invitation not just to relatives, but to her neighbors and friends in Del Ray. The party gets bigger each year, the king cakes are always the star of the show.
Jen hails from New Orleans, so king cakes and Twelfth Night parties are part of her heritage. The event, the twelfth day of Christmas, officially kicks off the beginning of the Carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras.
Though not a baker, Jen prides herself on hand making each king cake, using a recipe she has made so many times she has it memorized. Throughout the years Jen has tried different king cake recipes, but the one from the book Jambalaya is her favorite. One of her friends, also from New Orleans, says her king cakes taste just like the ones back home.
On a busy Sunday when Jen was fervently baking to prepare for her party, she took the time to walk me through the process of making a king cake. First Jen melts a stick of butter on the stove, then adds 2/3 cup evaporated skim milk, 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tsp salt and lets it cool.
In her stand mixer bowl, she combines 2 packages of dry yeast, 2 1/2 Tbsp sugar and 1/2 cup warm water and lets it stand until frothy. After about 10 minutes, she carefully adds 4 eggs.
She beats the yeast mixture and eggs and then adds the cooled butter-milk mixture and 2 Tbsp orange zest.
One half cup at a time, she adds a total of 5 1/3 cups of flour until a dough forms.
She transfer the sticky dough to her Roul’Pat mat and kneads. After a few minutes, she has a round ball of dough. If you do a lot of baking and rolling, Jen highly recommends investing in a Roul’Pat. You don’t need extra flour for rolling and the dough won’t stick.
At this point, she transfers the dough to a buttered bowl and lets it rise for a few hours until doubled in size. Since this was a day of marathon baking, Jen already had a ball of dough ready to show me the next steps.
First she punches down the dough and divides it in half (the recipe actually makes two cakes). She rolls out one ball of dough into a 15×30 inch rectangle, getting the corners as square as she can. Fortunately it’s the exact same size as the Roul’Pat.
Next she divides the rectangle into three equal length strips.
Her daughters jump at the chance to do the next step: Paint the dough with 1/2 cup melted butter.
Jen spreads half of the sugar and cinnamon mixture (a total of 1/2 cup brown sugar, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, and 1 Tbsp cinnamon) on the dough, folds each strip in half lengthwise and presses down for a tight seal.
Finally, the fun part: She braids the three strips and connects them to form a round (while her daughters cheer on).
Before baking, the cake needs to rest, covered with a damp cloth, for another hour. Then it will get an egg wash (1/2 egg) and the ceremonial yellow, green and purple sprinkles and will bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes.
And the finished product… doesn’t that look divine?
The day I visited was a week before the party so after her baking extravaganza, Jen froze all the cakes so they’d be fresh for the party. She typically takes the cakes out of the freezer the night before. Freezing doesn’t impact the flavor or texture — all the cakes were devoured at her party.
And no king cake would be complete without a miniature plastic baby inside. Jen tucks one in to each cake after it bakes. In New Orleans, the tradition is that the person who gets the baby brings a cake to the next party. Outside New Orleans, it’s a symbol of good luck.
Jen added that her family and friends back in New Orleans are always shocked that she makes her own king cakes. In New Orleans you can buy them practically anywhere, but in the rest of the country if you want that real New Orleans taste, it’s best to make them at home.