"King Cake" is the Louisiana term for the sweet bread served on Epiphany. This is the day that opens up Carnival or Mardi Gras. Most people think that Mardi Gras is only around the beginning of Lent, but it actually begins on 12th Night and ENDS on Tuesday at midnight before Ash Wednesday. Here's an interesting explanation of the King Cake origins.
This excerpt from The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book, fifth edition from 1922:
This is a Creole cake whose history is the history of the famous New Orleans Carnivals celebrated in song and stories. The "King's Cake," or Gateau de Roi, is inseparably connected with the origin of our now world-famed Carnival balls. In fact, they owe their origin to the old Creole custom of choosing a king and queen on King's Day, or Twelfth Night. In old Creole New Orleans, after the inauguration of the Spanish domination and the amalgamation of the French settlers and the Spanish into that peculiarly chivalrous and romantic race, the Louisiana Creole, the French prettily adopted many of the customs of their Spanish relatives, and vice versa. Among these was the traditional Spanish celebration of King's Day, Le Jour des Rois, as the Creoles always term the day. King's Day falls on January 6, or the twelfth day after Christmas, and commemorates the visit of the three Wise Men of the East to the lowly Bethlehem manger. This day Is still even in our time still the Spanish Christmas, when gifts are presented in commemoration of the Kings’ gifts. With the Creoles it became Le Petit Noël, or Little Christmas, and adopting the Spanish custom, there were always grand balls on Twelfth Night; a king and a queen were chosen, and there were constant rounds of festivities, night after night, till the dawn of Ash Wednesday. From January 6, or King's Day, and Mardi Gras Day became the accepted Carnival season. Each week a new king and queen were chosen and no royal rulers ever reigned more happily than did these kings and queens of a week.It seems almost every country has their own version of an Epiphany cake or bread. I couldn't find all the names or types for all the countries, but here are some highlights, keeping in mind that different regions and families do things a bit differently, so it's hard to make sweeping summaries.
Hispanic Countries: Rosca de los Reyes (Cake of the Kings). This is a fruit and nut filled ring or crown topped with icing and decorations, and bean or tiny doll inserted.
Spain: Roscón de Reyes is a roll that is ring shaped and sometimes filled with chocolate or jelly.
Germany and Switzerland: In both countries the Three Kings Cake is called Dreikönigskuchen and usually a gold crown is placed on top of the cake.
France: Galette (or Gateau) des Roi (or Rois) (Cake of the Kings). Usually this is a round and flat cake, honey-spice or sponge inside. It is decorated with pastry, fruits, or sugared frills. Each cake has a bean, small token or miniature doll inside. A nice tradition: there should be one more piece than the number of guests. The extra portion, la part a Dieu--God's share--is for the first poor person who knocks at the door. The day of the Kings means sharing as well as receiving. Nobody who asks for food or alms will leave empty-handed that day.
England: Twelfth Cake is eaten with Lamb's Wool (mulled ale with roasted apple pulp). Inside the cake are a bean and a pea. The man to find the bean was the King of the part, and the woman with the pea is the Queen.
The Festive Bread Book by Kathy Cutler contains 7 different types of bread or cakes for Epiphany, including ones from Spain, Brazil, Holland and a Twelfth Night Bread of Lady Carcas. This book is OOP. Another book I highly recommend, Celebrations of Bread by Betsy Oppenneer, only has one recipe for Epiphany, Rosca de Reyes.
We usually serve this King Cake as part of our Epiphany family celebration. This recipe is from from La Cucina Egeriana. by Eleanor Bernstein, Ferraro, CSJ and Maria Bettina, from Notre Dame Centre for Pastoral Liturgy, a cookbook that is out-of-print. There is another similar recipe in Bad Catholics Guide to Good Living by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak. I know Denise is a chef from New Orleans, so this recipe is definitely authentic. Compared to this one, the main difference is that there is no nut filling in her version.
2 packages dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1/2 cup sugar (divided, 1/3 cup plus remaining amount, 2 Tbsp.)
1 stick butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons finely grated orange rind
5 cups flour plus 1 cup for kneading surface
Melt 1 stick butter, milk, 1/3 cup sugar and salt in a saucepan. Cool to lukewarm. Combine 2 tablespoons sugar, yeast and water in a large mixing bowl. Let stand until it foams (5-10 minutes). Beat eggs into yeast mixture, then add milk mixture and lemon and orange rinds. Stir in flour, 1/2 cup at a time, reserving 1 cup for the kneading surface. Knead dough until smooth (about 5-10 minutes). Place in large mixing bowl that has been greased. Turn dough once to grease top; cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 stick butter, melted
Either 1 egg beaten or Confectioner's Sugar Icing (see below)
Then 1/3 cup each colored sugar of purple, yellow and green
2 plastic babies (3/4 inch) or 2 red beans
For filling, mix pecans, brown sugar, granulated sugar and cinnamon. Set aside. For topping, tint sugar by mixing in food coloring until desired shade is reached. For purple, use equal amounts of blue and red. (Use just a drop or two at a time).
When dough has doubled, punch down and divide in half. On a floured surface, roll half into a rectangle 30 x 15 inches (this takes a long time for me, and the dough gets to be very thin). Brush with half of the melted butter and cut into 3 lengthwise strips. Sprinkle half of sugar mixture and pecans on strips, leaving a 1-inch lengthwise strip free for sealing. Fold each strip lengthwise toward the center, sealing the seam. You will now have three 30-inch strips with sugar and nut mixture enclosed in each. Braid the 3 strips and make a circle by joining the ends. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Place each cake on a 10"x15" baking sheet, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Brush each egg and (optional) sprinkle top with colored sugars, in sequence.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake 20 minutes or until cake tests done. Remove from baking sheet immediately so that sugar will not harden. While still warm, place 1 plastic baby or bean in each from underneath the cake.
At this point I add Confectioner's Sugar Icing and then sprinkle colored sugar in different sections of the cakes.
To freeze, wrap cooled cake tightly in plastic wrap. Before serving, remove plastic and thaw. The cake is best if heated slightly before serving.