Mixed Review: Mam Papaul's King Cake
Mix cost: $7.49
What you need: 1 cup hot water, 1 egg, 1 1/4 stick of butter or margarine, nuts (optional)
Number of servings: 18
Skill level: Intermediate
Active time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Inactive time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
I was totally jealous when I read about Sweets Editor Carrie's first taste of King Cake on a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street in New Orleans, so when I spied a box of Mam Papaul's King Cake mix ($7.49) at World Market, I figured making one at home would be the best way to experience it for myself. In my excitement, I didn't quite register that making this cake would be nothing like whipping up a typical cake mix. More on that later.
Inside the box, there's a bag of cake mix, a small packet of yeast, a bag of glaze mix, a bag of filling mix, three packets of sprinkles, and the aforementioned plastic baby. You'll need a cup of hot water, one egg, and 1 1/4 stick of butter or margarine.
You can make the cake using a stand mixer or mix it by hand using a large zip-lock bag (included). Mine had a hole in it, so inspect the bag before you load it up. The first step is making the dough, which, if you're using the bag method, involves shaking up the cake mix with the yeast, then adding hot water, an egg, and half a stick of melted butter.
Kneading the bag of warm, wet, eggy dough until all of the ingredients were evenly combined took a full 15 minutes (but felt much longer). At the 10 minute mark, I was worried there was too much flour and not enough butter, but the dough came together perfectly.
Next comes resting, rising, and a lot of waiting. The dough needs to proof in a bowl for about 30-45 minutes until it doubles in size, then it's rolled out in a large rectangle and spread with filling (a packet of brown sugar that you mix up with the remaining butter, and nuts, if you like). Next, the dough gets rolled up like a jelly roll and formed into a ring on a greased baking sheet. Then it rises for another 30 minutes or so.
The only tweak I made was adding cinnamon to the filling, since I couldn't see any in the ingredients list (and it's a standard ingredient in brown sugar-based King Cake filling). Given that the dough smelled extremely sweet, and would be filled, glazed, and sprinkled with even more sugar, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Baking takes 20-25 minutes in a 375°F oven. The cake browns up and is soft to the touch. You'll have to let it cool for about 45 minutes to an hour before glazing and decorating it. Don't worry about running out of sprinkles, there's plenty in the packets, so you can be fairly aggressive.
The plastic baby comes into play at the very end. It's meant to be pressed into the bottom of the cake, and whoever gets it in their slice will either be the recipient of good luck for a year, or is responsible for baking next year's cake.
As soon as I could, I cut myself a piece. The cake was soft and squishy all the way through, like a giant cinnamon roll. Speaking of which, adding cinnamon to the filling was the right way to go, but I should have gone with a full tablespoon (and maybe some nutmeg, too).
The main benefit of the mix is that it cuts out a lot of measuring and you get everything you need in one box. But the active time isn't much quicker than making a King Cake from scratch.
If you're up for investing a bit more time and effort, you can tweak the recipe by mixing in some candied citron (like in Emeril's recipe) or swapping the brown sugar filling for a cream cheese filling (like this other recipe from Emeril), or pie filling (apple would be awesome). The filling mix that comes in the box is fine, but introducing some tanginess, acidity, or spice would be a big improvement (and not much more difficult to execute).
The results of this mix were delicious and impressive, and even though it was a lot of work, it wasn't too taxing or difficult. Still, given the 3+ hours of time it took me from start to finish, I can see why these cakes are served during special occasions, and usually only once a year. It'll be a long time before I attempt a King Cake again.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her San Diego food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax