If there’s any food more ubiquitous for celebrating Mardi Gras than King Cake, I’m not certain what it is. I suppose pancakes would be a reasonable answer, but I wasn’t really in the mood for pancakes. I wanted to create something a little more interesting than an ordinary King Cake, and lot more delicious than any version that involves cinnamon rolls from a can. They’re okay in a pinch, but no substitute for the real thing.
This recipe is essentially the most delicious homemade cinnamon roll you’ve ever had, braided, baked, and topped with cream cheese frosting and festive sprinkles. Cinnamon rolls are a perfect choice for a sort of imposter King Cake, because King Cake is typically a yeast dough with cinnamon – the biggest difference between the two is the texture. If you’re a stickler for tradition, maybe check out a different King Cake recipe. If you want to make a batch of perfect, soft, gooey, “personal King Cakes,” then this recipe is for you.
King Cake Cinnamon Rolls are far superior to regular cinnamon rolls because of the way the cinnamon mixture is folded into the dough. The even distribution of gooey, buttery cinnamon-sugar throughout each roll makes every bite perfectly balanced. To achieve this, you start by splitting the dough into three sections. The sections are rolled out, one at a time, into roughly 12×10 inch rectangles. The rectangles of dough are covered with a thin layer of butter, then the cinnamon-sugar mixture, and then sliced into eight equal pieces, as shown in the photo below:
At this point, you stack the strips in layers of two, so you have four piles. Then you twist two of the piles together, and repeat with the other two piles, to get this:
Then you curl each twist into a circle, pinch the ends together, and place it in a greased 9×13 pan. They look a lot more elaborate than they are, but since you’re braiding just two sections together, it’s really just criss-crossing the pieces over each other. When you get them all in the pan and bake them, the result looks so impressive you may decide to skip frosting and sprinkles entirely – I mean, look at them:
But everyone knows that cream cheese frosting is half the reason you eat cinnamon rolls in the first place, and not adding sprinkles on Mardi Gras would be silly, so I don’t know if skipping them is really in your best interest. The cinnamon rolls do bake up sort of square-shaped, since they’re nestled in the pan that way. I cut the corners off of mine (after baking) to give them that nice, round, King Cake shape. This is a great way to go, because then you can eat all those extra corners. It’s not gluttony, it’s Fat Tuesday. It’s important not to waste food, after all.
If you want to make the experience more authentic, you can hide a little plastic baby inside one of the cakes. A popular alternative is to use a bean – or in my case, a gold jelly bean (champagne flavored!). In either case, remember to warn people to watch for it. Finding the baby or the bean in your cake symbolizes luck and prosperity, and means you’re the king for the day. Which, of course, means automatic permission to snag another cinnamon roll!
King Cake Cinnamon Rolls
Cinnamon roll dough adapted by Homemade With An Upgrade from "Master Formula: Multipurpose Sweet Dough," from Crust & Crumb, by Peter Reinhart.
Filling and cream cheese frosting recipes are from "Glazed Cinnamon Rolls", from The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated.
Cinnamon Roll Dough
- 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling 420g
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar 50g
- 1 Tbsp instant yeast .33oz
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softend
- 1 1/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature 9.75oz
- 1 1/2 Tbsp butter for spreading on rolled dough
- 3/4 cup packed, light brown sugar 144g
- 3 Tbsp cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp salt
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 4 oz cream cheese, softened
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar 60g
- pinch of salt
- 1 Tbsp light corn syrup
- 1 Tbsp heavy cream
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- yellow, green, and purple sprinkles for decorating
Combine all the ingredients, except the cinnamon sugar, in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook or in a mixing bowl. Mix on slow speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for about 8 minutes.
2. If mixing by hand, stir the ingredients together till they form a ball, and turn onto a floured surface (at this point, I let the dough rest while I quickly wash, dry, and spray the bowl). Knead for 10 to 12 minutes. The dough should be soft, smooth, and a little bit sticky, and should pass the windowpane test: after kneading for 6 to 8 minutes, or when the dough feels supple and stretchy, pinch off a small piece and stretch it slowly apart, gently pulling and rotating it. You are trying to stretch the dough into a thin, translucent membrane or windowpane. If it tears easily before reaching this state, knead for a few more minutes and try the test again. If the dough has not set up within 15 minutes, it may be too wet or too dry, in which case you will have to add more flour or water, as needed.
3. Place the dough in the clean bowl lightly oiled with cooking spray, mist the dough with cooking spray, cover it with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise for 45 minutes. The dough will double in size. Then put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour. It will firm up as it cools. It can stay in the refrigerator longer, if necessary, but I have not tested it past 3 hours.
4. Prepare a 9x13 pan. If baking immediately, generously butter the bottom and lightly butter the sides, and sprinkle the bottom with cinnamon or cinnamon-sugar (1 part cinnamon, 4 parts sugar, stirred together). If freezing for future use, line pan with parchment or parchment-lined foil, butter the bottom lightly, and sprinkle the bottom with cinnamon or cinnamon-sugar. Set aside.
5. Prepare filling: stir brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt together in a small bowl, and set aside.
6. Separate chilled dough into three equal pieces, cover and let rest for 15 minutes. Lightly dust the work surface with flour and roll out one ball of dough into a rectangle about ¼” thick, 12” along one side and about 10” on the other. Use the back of a spoon to gently spread the dough with a ½ Tbsp very soft butter. Evenly sprinkle the butter with 1/3rd of the filling.
7. Slice dough into eight equal strips. Working with two strips at a time, stack one on top of the other so you have four sets of two stacked strips. Take two of the sets, pinch the top ends together, and braid them together. Each stack is treated like a single unit, so really you're just criss-crossing the two stacks back and forth over one another. Curl the criss-crossed dough into a circle, pinching the ends together to close the circle, and place in the greased baking pan. Repeat this process with the other two balls of dough until you have six round braided rolls in the pan.
8. Mist the rolls with cooking spray, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Set the pan aside to rise at room temperature for about 45 minutes. Position the baking rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
If you need to hold the rolls longer than 45 minutes before baking, pop them in the fridge after the rise. If freezing for future use, cover tightly with plastic wrap, then wrap securely with aluminum foil (pan and all), and use a Sharpie to write gently on the foil to label it: “Thaw in fridge overnight, then let rise 1 hour on counter. Bake at 350 degrees about 55 minutes.”
9. Remove the plastic wrap and bake the swirls at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.
10. Prepare the icing/glaze: Beat the cream cheese until it is perfectly smooth. Beat in the powdered sugar and salt until completely mixed. Beat in the corn syrup, cream, vanilla extract, and almond extract, if using, until the icing is smooth.
11. When the spiral rolls have baked 15 minutes and look just barely golden brown, gently break a center swirl open to check that the middle is done (not still doughy-looking). Do not overbake. Drizzle and spread the glaze over the finished rolls. Top with yellow, green, and purple sprinkles. Add a gold jelly bean or little plastic baby, pushed into the underside of one of the rolls.