Every culture has certain breads that are (usually) only baked for special occasions. And why not? Bread is a symbol of life, so why not celebrate those special moments with that which gives us nourishment and, therefore, life!
And then there’s king cake. Traced to 12th century France and Spain but perhaps originating as far back as the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a version of king cake can be found in almost every area of Christendom. That’s because king cake was originally used to celebrate Epiphany, when, tradition had it, the Magi arrived to see the Christ child. (While they are commonly referred to as the “three kings”—fun fact—the Bible doesn’t actually mention how many kings, or wise men, visited baby Jesus!)
This begins to explain the presence of a small figurine, nowadays a plastic baby, hidden somewhere in the cake. It’s said to represent the baby Jesus, and whoever finds it gets to be king for a day—or at the very least has to bring the king cake to next year’s celebration.
Before the plastic baby, the figurines were porcelain. In Old World France, they depicted a crowned head (until the French Revolution, when many royalty—ahem—lost their heads). The figurines replaced what had been used by the Romans, a fava bean, which was a symbol of either death or good luck, based on the story of a drought in medieval Sicily, when fava beans were the only crop that grew.
More recently, in the U.S. at least, king cake has become symbolic of Mardi Gras, the wild party held right before Lent. The modern king cake is really a bread made of enriched yeast dough and formed in the shape of a circle (or crown), featuring such fillings as cinnamon and sugar; fruit and cream cheese; nuts and praline; or, in homage to the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis-inspired peanut butter, banana, marshmallow and bacon.
For my “enriched celebratory loaf,” I chose to make a king cake, but with my own twist on it, so to speak. I used a babka-like dough, and my filling was inspired by the colors traditionally found on top of a king cake: green for faith, purple for justice and gold for power. Combining lemon, lavender and pistachios with a poppyseed filling gave it an almost Middle Eastern quality. To carry the theme full circle, I also used those elements to top my king cake, although the lavender didn’t bring out the color I had hoped it would and may have made the flavor a bit overpowering, as well.
I started by making candied lemon slices to use as my gold topping. This recipe from MyRecipes.com was simple enough: Boil thinly sliced lemons in a simple syrup until slightly translucent, then remove to wax paper and cool. While they looked pretty, they weren’t as tasty as the candied orange zest I made for my Chocolate-Orange Torte.
Then I prepared my poppy seed filling, adapted from this recipe. I didn’t want to grind the poppy seeds in my coffee grinder, because I didn’t want them tasting like coffee, so I decided to use a wet grinding method adapted from this website. I rinsed the seeds, then poured boiling water over them and let them soak overnight. After draining them in the morning, I ran them through the food grinder attachment of my stand mixer.
Then I steeped a tablespoon of dried lavender buds with the milk, butter and honey (I used only 6 tablespoons of honey instead of the cup of sugar the recipe called for.) for about 5 minutes before straining off the lavender and adding the poppy seeds to the milk mixture. After removing it from the heat, I stirred in the lemon zest and ground pistachios instead of almonds. When it had cooled, I tasted it and decided to up the lemon flavor with a splash or two of limoncello.
Once my filling was ready, I started my dough, following this recipe from KingArthurFlour.com. Because an enriched dough needs a long prove in a cool environment, I started it the night before I planned to bake it.
The next day, I divided the dough into thirds, rolled each one out into a rectangle, spread the filling and rolled up the dough. To make it more babka-like, I split each roll down the middle lengthwise and then twisted the two halves together, split side up. (This creates an interesting pattern of intertwined light and dark stripes and allows some of the filling to spill out during the baking process, sort of like an inside-out cinnamon roll.) I then transferred the three pieces onto a baking sheet and formed them into a circle.
While the babka/king cake was in its final proof, I made a lavender simple syrup glaze, halving this recipe but substituting limoncello for the honey.
As soon as the king cake came out of the oven, I brushed it all over with the simple syrup. Not only did it infuse it with more lavender flavor, it also gave it a lovely shine and allowed my toppings to stick more easily. I alternated candied lemon slices, ground pistachios and a lavender-tinted glaze on top of the cake, sprinkling a few crushed lavender buds on top of the glaze. If I had had some sprigs of fresh lavender flowers I probably would have used those instead, just for garnish, but my potted lavender plant had already flowered and wasn’t very pretty when I made my king cake. In the future, I probably won’t sprinkle the lavender on top, as it came across a bit strong for most people. The lavender in the filling and the syrup was plenty.
Overall, I was pleased with my celebratory loaf. It was well-baked and looked like a showstopper. The flavors melded together well, somewhat like a cross between baklava and an Eastern European poppy seed roll, or kolache.
Poppy Seed King Cake with Lemon, Lavender & Pistachio
For Candied Lemons
- Cut lemons into 1/8-inch-thick round slices. Pick out and discard seeds.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, stir sugar, lemon juice and water together until sugar is dissolved. Add lemon slices and simmer gently, keeping slices in a single layer and turning occasionally, until they are slightly translucent and rinds are softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove slices from syrup, placing on wax paper to cool. Reserve syrup for another use. Cool lemon slices completely before placing in an airtight container, and store in refrigerator for 2-3 days.
For Poppy Seed Filling
- Rinse poppy seeds in a fine-mesh strainer (or line a colander with cheesecloth and rinse them in that). Dump seeds into a 2-quart bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to cover the seeds. Let soak overnight. The next day, drain seeds in the same strainer used to rinse them.
- Put milk, butter, honey and lavender in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over low-medium heat. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the lavender. Return milk mixture to the pan over low heat. Add the poppy seeds and cook while stirring for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon zest and pistachios. Mix well and cool. Add limoncello to taste.
For the Dough
- Using your fingers, rub the lemon zest into the sugar until all of the sugar is moist. Combine the lemon sugar with the flour and yeast in the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a beater blade. Mix on low speed until combined, about 1 minute.
- Add the eggs, water and salt to the bowl. Mix on low speed briefly, then increase speed to medium and mix for 5 more minutes or until the dough comes together. Switch to the dough hook and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time, kneading until each cube is completely incorporated into the dough. Once butter is incorporated, move dough to a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until it is smooth, elastic and shiny, 10-15 minutes.
- Place dough in a large oiled bowl, turning to coat it with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- To assemble, divide the dough into thirds. Working with one piece at a time, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about 10” x 11”. With an offset spatula, spread 1/3 of the filling over the rectangle, leaving a ½-inch border around the edges.
- Brush a little water along one long edge of the rectangle. Starting from the opposite long edge, roll the dough into a log. Press to seal the dampened end and rest the log on its seam.
- Use a serrated knife to trim about ¾ inch off each end of the roll. Then gently cut the roll in half lengthwise. With the two halves next to each other, cut sides facing up, gently cross one piece over the other, then alternate to create a two-strand braid.
- Repeat the process with the other two pieces of dough and remaining filling.
- Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently transfer the three braids to the prepared pan and form them into one large circle, braiding the ends together for continuity. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place for 1½ hours. The dough won’t double in size, but it should rise by about 20 percent.
- While the dough is rising, make the simple syrup (see recipe below). Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 375F. Remove the plastic wrap and bake the king cake for 25-30 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center of the dough comes out clean.
For the Lavender Syrup
- Bring the water and lavender to a boil. Once it starts boiling, stir in the sugar and keep stirring until it’s fully dissolved. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep for about an hour. Strain out the lavender and stir in limoncello.
- As soon as the king cake comes out of the oven, slide the parchment paper onto a cooling rack placed on a jelly roll pan or roasting pan to catch any drips. Brush the syrup all over the bread, using all of it.
- Put powdered sugar into a small bowl, add milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, stirring after each addition to create a thin glaze that can be drizzled over the bread. Stir in food coloring, one drop at a time, until you have a pastel lavender color.
- Top the king cake with alternating sections of pistachios, lemon slices and glaze.
- When cool, remove from parchment paper and slice to serve. Store leftovers in refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before serving. Can be frozen wrapped well in plastic, for up to a month.