King cake

Sweet and gaudy: Ring-shaped, gaudily decorated with golds, greens and purples, and always containing a hidden trinket of some sort, the king cake is a tradition as firmly rooted in French culture as New Orleans itself. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

3 3/4 cups flour, plus more for kneading
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon each: vanilla, lemon zest
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Several gratings of fresh nutmeg

2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Purple, green and gold decorative sugars
1 bean or small plastic baby

1. For the cake, pour the milk into a bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour, mixing until sugar and yeast have dissolved. Allow to rest until bubbles have developed on the surface.

2. Whisk in the butter, eggs yolks, vanilla and lemon zest. Add remaining flour, cinnamon and nutmeg; fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients with a spatula.

3. When dough pulls away from sides of the bowl (you may need to add 1-2 tablespoons flour), shape it into a large ball. Knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic, adding a little flour if needed, 10-15 minutes.

4. Return dough to bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in volume, 1 1/2 hours.

5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Punch down dough; divide into 3 equal pieces. Roll pieces into long ropes, each about 2 inches wide and of equal length. Braid ropes around one another; form loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal. Gently lay loaf on a nonstick cookie sheet; let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.

6. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool, 30 minutes.

7. Meanwhile, for the icing, whisk together the confectioners' sugar, condensed milk and lemon juice in a bowl until smooth and spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a bit more condensed milk; if too loose, add a little confectioners' sugar.

8. Spread the icing over the cooled cake; sprinkle with decorative sugars while the icing is still wet. Tuck the bean or plastic baby into the underside of the cake; slide the cake onto a platter to serve.