I have never set myself the task of making a real King Cake, as I figure there are enough people who do that already. My brother used to send me delicious King Cakes from a bakery in New Orleans when I was in college. Those cakes were moist and tender with a cream cheese filling, with a brightly colored, but simple frosting.
The cake was packaged with beads and doubloons and made for a fun party all around. I was always very popular during Mardi Gras season. That is really my idea of what a King Cake should be, though I know there are many different versions. Those were the first, and still the best, King Cakes I have ever had. But now, I often find the bakeries in my local grocery stores offer wildly decorated King Cakes leading up to Mardi Gras. I have bought them, but they are generally dry and tasteless and a real disappointment (and often stale). I once ordered a fancy, artfully decorated King Cake from a New Orleans bakery at great expense, but even it was dry.
These bars meet all my King Cake flavor requirements, but are simpler to make and to serve. They make a great dessert for a Mardi Gras party, and would pack up beautifully to carry to a parade-viewing spot. I sprinkle colored sanding sugar in the traditional purple, green and gold color scheme over the top for a sparkly Mardi Gras feel, but you could easily tint the glaze, use sprinkles or the fancier luster dust.
And a word about the baby. Traditionally, King Cake has a small plastic baby figure backed inside. The person whose piece of cake contains the baby is then responsible for hosting the next King Cake party. Many bakeries now include the baby in the box, but don’t bake it into the cake. I assume this is for liability reasons, as a small plastic baby is a choking hazard. If you do happen to have a plastic baby, feel free to bake it into the King Cake Bars, though it is likely to show through the filling and be less of a surprise.
King Cake Bars
Makes about 15 bars
For the Crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9- x 13-inch glass baking dish with cooking spray.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour and sugar. Drop in the butter cubes and beat on low speed until the mixture is crumbly and looks a bit like wet sand. Add the milk and beat until it starts to stick together. Sprinkle the mixture into the prepared baking dish and press it in to form an even layer, making sure there are no holes or gaps.
For the Filling:
2 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Wipe out the mixer bowl and rinse and dry the paddle. Beat the filling ingredients together until completely smooth. Spread the filling evenly over the prepared crust. Bake the bars for 20 – 25 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the filling is set.
For the Glaze:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoon milk
Colored sanding sugar or sprinkles (purple, green and gold)
While the bars are cooking, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and milk until completely smooth. As soon as you remove the bars from the oven, spread the glaze in an even layer across the top. Immediately decorate with sanding sugar. Leave the bars to cool completely, then slice.
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