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King cake for the day

It's a coffee cake with a twist and a history. The feted king cake of New Orleans, made of braided Danish pastry and laced with cinnamon, is traditionally served between Epiphany (Twelfth Night) and Mardi Gras, which this year is celebrated on Tuesday.

The pastry is often topped with sugar crystals in the colors of Carnival: purple representing justice, green for faith, and gold for power; however, color variations exist. Hidden in each king cake is a tiny ceramic or plastic baby. By tradition, the person who finds the baby must buy the next king cake or host the next party.

The king cake's origins are French, and originally it was part of a family's Twelfth Night celebration. In the years immediately following the Civil War - according to the Crescent City's Web site - the Twelfth Night Revelers held a society ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the group chose a queen of the ball. That jump-started a tradition that continues to this day.

This high-society event spawned themed parties throughout New Orleans. After a family entertained with a king cake on Twelfth Night, others would continue each weekend through Carnival and Mardi Gras, with the baby-finder throwing the next party, and so on. Originally a coin or bean was hidden in the cake, but it morphed into a miniature baby over time. Now, schools and offices have largely taken over from the family tradition with one-day parties.

Contemporary king cakes are often filled with cream cheese or fruit fillings, such as apple, cherry or strawberry, and some have a white icing glaze. The classic king cake is plain and oval-shaped, the dough rolled out with the ends twisted together.

The traditions associated with the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans are no longer confined to the city. Bakers all across the country create king cakes to mark the days leading up to Lent.

King cake

Up to 22 servings

This recipe is from Chef Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans.

2 envelopes active dry yeast

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 1/2 cups warm milk (about 110 degrees)

1/2 cup warm water

5 large egg yolks, at room temperature

4 1/2 cups bleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons milk, for brushing on risen dough

Filling:

1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup confectioner's sugar

1 plastic king cake baby or a pecan half

Frosting:

3 tablespoons milk, at room temperature

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 cups confectioner's sugar

Purple-, green- and gold-tinted sugar sprinkles

-Combine yeast and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add melted butter and warm milk and warm water. Beat at low speed for 1 minute. With the mixer running, add egg yolks; then beat for 1 minute at medium-low speed. Add flour, salt, nutmeg and lemon zest, and beat until everything is incorporated.

-Increase the speed to high and beat until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a ball, and starts to climb up the dough hook. If the dough is uncooperative in coming together, add a bit of warm water (110 degrees), a tablespoon at a time, until it does.

-Remove dough from the bowl. Using your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly oil a bowl with the vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

-Meanwhile, make the filling: In a large mixing bowl, combine cream cheese and 1 cup confectioner's sugar. Blend by hand or with an electric mixer on low speed. Set aside.

-Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

-Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers, pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.

-Spread the filling lengthwise over the bottom half of the dough, then flip top half of the dough over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a cylinder and place it on the prepared baking sheet seam side down. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn't a seam.

-Insert the king cake baby or pecan half into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough.

-Cover the ring with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free place. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

-Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush the top of the risen cake with 2 tablespoons milk. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

-Make the icing: Combine 3 tablespoons milk, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 3 cups confectioner's sugar in medium-size mixing bowl. Stir to blend well. With a rubber spatula, spread icing evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, alternating colors around the cake.

-The cake is traditionally cut into 2-inch-thick slices with all the guests in attendance.

NOT A BAKER?

To order king cakes from New Orleans:

Haydel's Bakery, (800) 442-1342, http://haydelbakery.com

Gambino's Bakery, (504) 712-0809, http://gambinos.com

Southern Candymakers, (800) 344-9773, http://southerncandymakers.com

King Cakes Online, (877) 261-0429, http://kingcakesonline.com

Randazzo's, (800) 684-2253, http://kingcakes.com

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