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Sourdough King Cake

When I lived in Beaumont, Texas, the influence of Louisiana on the local cuisine A king Cake Under Glass was so strong many people joked that Beaumont wasn't really a part of Texas at all. In addition to many good friends, I miss all of the Cajun and Creole food we enjoyed there. Especially Turducken (which is another story altogether), and King Cake.

King Cake is a tradition in New Orleans which has been adopted elsewhere. From Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas, when the three wise men are said to have found the baby Jesus) until Mardi Gras day is King Cake season.

King Cake is a gaudy filled yeast cake. Without the gaudy frosting and the traditional "extra" in its stuffing, it would still be a nice coffee cake. It's shaped like a crown, honoring Christ the King and the three wise men who visited him. It is decorated with green, gold, and purple sugar or frosting. I prefer frosting myself. The three colors honor the three wise men. Purple represents justice, green reminds us of faith, and gold stands for power.

It is said that the three colors first appeared in 1872 on a Krewe of Rex carnival flag especially made for the visiting Grand Duke of Russia. He came to New Orleans to join in the Mardi Gras celebrations (and, in the best New Orleans traditions, to visit his American mistress), and these ubiquitous colors in Mardi Gras celebrations are his legacy.

The last part of the King Cake tradition is that in each cake is placed either a large dried bean or a small plastic baby. The plastic baby may be pink, brown, or gold. When the cake is cut up and served, whoever finds the bean or the baby has a year's good luck - and gets to buy the next day's King Cake. King Cakes run anywhere from $4.00 for a modest grocery store mass produced cake to as much as $25.00 for a fancy one. Many bakeries will air-freight one to you, but the price goes up pretty quickly. We're going to make a fairly fancy King Cake.

A cynical friend calls this "your choking hazard cake," and there may well be some truth to that indictment. If you serve this cake to people who are not familiar with King Cake, warn them that the cake is stuffed with a bean, a plastic baby, or whatever else you used. You might not want to tell kids that they could choke..... a better tact would be tell them there's something special in the cake, and whoever finds it will be lucky all year long. That should keep them looking for it and help everyone avoid the choking issue without having the kids get stressed out.

Some people are worried the plastic babies could melt in the cake, so they stick the baby in the cake after it's baked. This leaves a hole in the cake, so even all but the slowest child can see where the baby is. We haven't found that the babies melt, so we just roll them into the cake when we form the cake. If you are looking for your own plastic babies, check out this odd store.

This recipe is from the 1990 Southern Living. However, I modified it for sourdough baking. As always, I feel if something is good with yeast, it's better with sourdough.

This recipe is for 2 king cakes.

Ingredients for the cake:
1/4 cup butter
1 (16 oz) container sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 ice cubes
3/4 cup active sourdough starter
2 eggs
5 7/8 cup all-purpose or (20% bran) flour.

Method:
Put the butter, the sour cream, the sugar, and the salt into a skillet and heat over medium heat, stirring often, until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and toss in the two ice cubes. Stir, and let the mixture cool to 100 to 105F. (The ice cubes are partly there to help cool the butter mixture, and partly to add just a little more moisture to the cake. When I converted the recipe, the program said I needed .07 cups of water. Right. Let's use two ice cubes instead.)

Put the starter into your mixer, fitted with a dough hook. Break in the two eggs. Start the mixer. Add two cups of flour, and then the cooled butter/sour cream mixture. Once this mixes together, add about 3 more cups of flour, one cup at a time. You want a soft, pliable dough. Let the mixer knead it about 2 minutes.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead another 10 minutes or so. You may add some more of the flour if needed. You want a soft dough, pliable, and smooth.

Form the dough into a ball, put into an oil ed bowl, turn the dough to cover it with oil, then cover the dough and let rise until doubled. How long this will take will depend on your starter and the temperature of the area where the dough will be rising.

While the dough is rising, you can work on the filling. Some people use a simpler cinnamon sugar filling. Others use cream cheese fillings. Some people use cheese-cake style batters.

Optional Cinnamon Sugar Filling, ingredients and procedure:

Mix:
1/2 cup sugar and
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
and set the filling aside. You'll also need 1/3 cup of melted butter.

Optional Cream Cheese Filling for one cake, ingredients and procedure:
Cream together:
1 8-oz package cream cheese
1 cup confectioners sugar
2 TBSP flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
a drop or two of milk
with an electric mixer. Set aside.

Other filling ideas:
You can use cream cheese and a fruit filling. You can use chocolate or cocoa powder to flavor the filling above. The possibilities are endless. As this is being written, popular flavors include blueberry, cherry, and lemon. Half a 21 oz of pie filling will fill a King Cake, in conjunction with the cream cheese filling above.

Once the dough has doubled, punch down the dough and divide it in half. Put one half onto a lightly floured work surface and roll it out until it's about 28" by 10".

If you are using the cinnamon sugar filling, spread 1/2 of the reserved butter on the rectangle of dough. Cover that with 1/2 of the saved cinnamon-sugar mix.

If you are using another filling, brush the dough with butter, as above, to keep the dough from getting soggy, and then apply your preferred filling instead of the cinnamon sugar filling.

Put the plastic baby, the large dried bead, or even a plastic coin onto the rectangle of dough. Roll the 28" side like a jelly roll. Form into a ring, making sure the edge is down, and around the center of the roll - you don't want the seam to show. Moisten and pinch the edges to seal them. Repeat with the other blob of dough.

Cover the king cakes and allow to rise until doubled in volume in a warm place. Then bake 15 to 20 minutes in a 375F oven until the cake is golden.

Now it's time to decorate the cake. The easy way to do this is with colored sugars and sprinkles. I don't like the granular texture of the colored sugars, though many people do. Put 1/2 cup of sugar in each of three small jars. Old baby food bottles or yogurt cups work well for this. To one container add 1 or two drops of green food coloring. To the next add 1 or 2 drops of yellow food coloring. To the last container add 1 or 2 drops each of red and blue food coloring. Put the lids on the containers and shake them vigorously to distribute the colors. Spread on top of the cakes artistically. Sprinkle colored sprinkles on top of this, if you have sprinkles.

If you want to use frosting instead, combine:
3 cups sifted confectioners (powdered) sugar
3 TBSP melted butter.
Add milk, a bit at time, until the frosting is thin enough to be drizzled. Stir in 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Divide the frosting into three bowls. To one add 1 or 2 drops of green food coloring, to the next add 1 or 2 drops of yellow food coloring, and to the third add 1 or 2 drops each of red and blue food coloring. Stir well. Drizzle onto the cake. Sprinkle colored sprinkles on top, if you want.