Traditional New Orleans King Cake Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Prep: 40 min. + rising Bake: 25 min. + cooling
Here is the story behind this lucky dessert—and a guide on how to make king cake from scratch.

Updated: Dec. 06, 2023

When you think of Mardi Gras, you probably think of New Orleans parades, Bourbon Street and revelers tossing strands of colorful beads into the air. You may see fun New Orleans-inspired recipes all over the internet. But there are traditional Mardi Gras recipes, too—including king cake. We explain exactly what king cake is, why people hide a toy baby in it and how to make it yourself for a festive treat.

What is king cake?

King cake—also known as three kings cake or galette des rois, in French—is a sweet bread pastry that’s part of Mardi Gras celebrations across the country. It’s coated in thick frosting and decorated with colorful sugar sprinkles.

The king cake tradition originated centuries ago in areas such as France and Spain, where wreath-shaped cakes were eaten on King’s Day (January 6) to honor the three kings in the nativity story. When European immigrants made their way to America, they brought along the recipe—though the cakes back then were much simpler than the elaborate green, yellow and purple ones you’ll find in New Orleans’ French Quarter today.

Why is there a baby in king cake?

Homemade Colorful Sweet King Cake with a plastic baby on topbhofack2/Getty Images
Said to symbolize baby Jesus, the toy baby represents good luck in the coming year. Traditionally, there’s only one hidden inside the cake—whoever finds it is dubbed king or queen for the evening. Along with bragging rights, king-cake royalty means you’re in charge of buying or making the cake for the next year’s Fat Tuesday celebration.
The tradition of hiding objects in the cake dates back to the 19th century, when king cake had become a staple dessert at Mardi Gras celebrations, including the annual balls in New Orleans. Bakers began to hide objects inside the cake. It was usually a fava bean, but sometimes a pecan or even a gold ring! Whoever found the bean would be named the king or queen of the ball.

Fast forward to the 1940s, when a traveling salesman happened to have a surplus of porcelain babies. While in New Orleans, he approached McKenzie’s Bakery—the most successful commercial bakery in the city at the time—and suggested hiding the toy babies in king cake. The idea stuck, although they eventually switched to plastic toy babies.

King Cake Ingredients

Cake:

  • Active dry yeast
  • Warm water
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • 2% milk
  • Large egg yolks
  • Salt
  • Lemon zest
  • Ground nutmeg
  • All-purpose flour
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Egg

Glaze:

  • Confectioners’ sugar
  • Lemon juice
  • Water
  • Green, purple and yellow sugars

Directions

Step 1: Mix the dough

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, egg yolks, salt, lemon zest, nutmeg and 2 cups of flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft, sticky dough.

Editor’s Tip: Before you get started, test your yeast to make sure it’s active enough to leaven your king cake.

Step 2: Let it rise

On a floured surface, knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic, about six to eight minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning it once to grease the top. Cover it and let it rise in a warm place until it doubles, about one hour. Punch the dough down.

Step 3: Form the cake

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 16×10-inch rectangle. Combine the cinnamon and remaining sugar and sprinkle the mixture over the dough to within 1/2 inch of the edges. Roll up the dough jelly-roll style, starting with a long side, and pinch the dough to seal the seam. Place the dough seam-side down on a greased baking sheet and pinch the ends together to form a ring. Cover and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Brush with egg.

Step 4: Bake

Bake your king cake at 375°F for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Step 5: Hide the baby

If you want to hide a toy baby—or another object, like a trinket, coin or dried bean—wait until after the cake is baked and cooled. Otherwise, the object could melt and ooze into your cake.

Insert the baby from the bottom of the cake so that people won’t be able to see where it is.

Step 6: Glaze and decorate

For the glaze, combine the confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice and enough water to achieve your desired consistency. Spread the glaze over the cake and sprinkle with colored sugars.
Traditional New Orleans King Cake Exps Hca20 47350 E11 14 3b 18TMB studio

How to Store King Cake

Like most sweet bread recipes, it’s best to store king cake in an airtight container at room temperature for one to two days or in the refrigerator for three to five days. King cake can be frozen for up to three months before it’s glazed. Thaw overnight at room temperature, then add the glaze and colored sugar.

King Cake Recipe Variations

There are different variations you can try, like a king cake with cream cheese filling or this Mardi Gras king cake, which has an almond filling.

King Cake Tips

Can you use other colors of sanding sugars to decorate king cake?

King cake is decorated with traditional colors of purple, gold and green. These signify the colors of a jeweled crown honoring the wise men who visited baby Jesus on Epiphany. Purple represents justice, green for faith and gold for power. Other colors can be used, but purple, green and gold are customary.

Where can you buy king cake?

Short on time but still want to keep the tradition of having a king cake during Mardi Gras? Try an authentic New Orleans king cake shipped right to your door and ready to decorate. This Gambino’s Bakery Traditional King Cake kit has cinnamon filling and comes with everything you need: icing, sprinkles and toy baby.

Looking for something a bit more suited to your tastes? This Maurice French Pastries King Cake gives you the option to choose your filling before ordering. Cream cheese, chocolate pecan and apple cinnamon are just a few of the choices. Aside from the traditional frosting, sprinkles and toy baby, this kit also comes with festive party additions like a spatula, beads and decorative coins.

Watch how to Make Traditional New Orleans King Cake

Traditional New Orleans King Cake

Prep Time 40 min
Cook Time 25 min
Yield 1 cake (12 pieces).

Ingredients

  • 2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water (110° to 115°)
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup warm 2% milk (110° to 115°)
  • 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
  • 1-1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3-1/4 to 3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • GLAZE:
  • 1-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons water
  • Green, purple and yellow sugars

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 1/2 cup sugar, butter, milk, egg yolks, salt, lemon zest, nutmeg and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky).
  2. Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, 6-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
  3. Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into a 16x10-in. rectangle. Combine cinnamon and remaining sugar; sprinkle over dough to within 1/2 in. of edges. Roll up jelly-roll style, starting with a long side; pinch seam to seal. Place seam side down on a greased baking sheet; pinch ends together to form a ring. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Brush with egg.
  4. Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. For glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and enough water to achieve desired consistency. Spread over cake. Sprinkle with colored sugars.

Nutrition Facts

1 piece: 321 calories, 9g fat (5g saturated fat), 73mg cholesterol, 313mg sodium, 55g carbohydrate (28g sugars, 1g fiber), 5g protein.

Get in on the fun of traditional king cake by hiding a little toy baby in the cake. Whoever finds it has one year of good luck! —Rebecca Baird, Salt Lake City, Utah