King’s Cake

January 6, 2009
by Jack McNulty


King’s Cake (called Dreikönigskuchen throughout the Swiss German-speaking Cantons) is the first food tradition of the year. As it turns out, this recipe is simple to make and has many possible variations…allowing you to enjoy a fresh version for more than just one day!

Virtually everyone in Switzerland is in some way touched by the special bread overflowing from every bakery on January 6th.

Enjoying a King’s Cake is an old tradition with distinct Christian roots falling on the Festival of Epiphany. The cake itself is an odd-shaped bread consisting of 7-11 small rolls, which are often garnished with almond slivers, coarse sugar and sometimes raisins. One of the rolls contains a surprise buried inside, which allows whoever finds the hidden icon (mostly a plastic figurine) to be named king or queen for the day…and of course, also explains why these breads are sold with paper crowns.

The tradition in Switzerland can be traced back to the early 1300s, but its popularity waned considerably over the years and nearly disappeared altogether.

That is until large Swiss bakeries revived the tradition during the early 1950s and quickly flooded the market with mass-produced King’s Cakes…conveniently with a paper crown included! The bakers’ marketing efforts were rewarded and the King’s Cake has now become the number one selling specialty item for bakers in Switzerland with over one million being produced – an astonishing number for such a small country…but also leaving everyone with pretty decent odds of being crowned king or queen for the day. 

The traditional Swiss version of the King’s Cake is made from a classic yeast bread dough – similar to a brioche. It is relatively simple to make, but it does require a bit of time – perhaps explaining why these cakes were replaced with a more accessible store-bought version.

Our version differs slightly than the traditional offering…but it still requires a bit of time to produce.

We like to fill the rolls with a bit of jam (apricot, rose hip, raspberry, cherry, etc.), then replace the plastic figurine in one of the rolls with a more edible whole almond. Finally, we prefer baking the bread in a steaming liquid consisting of milk, sugar and butter (similar to another classic Swiss recipe called Dampfnudeln). This will produce a slight glaze on the bread and a wonderfully moist consistency.

We believe our version is so good, in fact, that we often simply change the shape and continue to enjoy this freshly-made treat well after January 6th has passed.


Here’s What You’ll Need To Make Our Version:
250 gr. flour (use zopfmehl or all-purpose flour)
15 gr. fresh yeast
1 dl. milk
40 gr. sugar
1 egg
5 gr. salt
40 gr. butter
zest from one orange
8-10 tsp. jam (use raspberry, apricot, rose hip, etc.)
1 whole almond
almond slivers
coarse sugar

for the steaming liquid:
1.5 dl. milk
40 gr. sugar
40 gr. butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Let’s Get Started…


Begin by placing the 250 gr. of flour in a bowl and form a well in the center. In a separate bowl, mix together 15 gr. of fresh yeast with 1 dl. of warm milk and 1 small spoonful of the 40 gr. of sugar. The milk should be slightly warmer than body temperature, although you should make sure it is not much warmer than your body as this will kill the yeast. Mix well with a spoon or your fingers to dissolve the yeast and the sugar, then pour this mixture into the flour well. Mix 1-2 spoons of the flour into the yeast mixture to help the sponge develop. Leave this entire mixture in a warm area until the sponge develops a foamy look (about 15-30 minutes).


Meanwhile, mix together 1 egg with the remaining sugar, 5 gr. of salt, 40 gr. of melted butter and the zest of one orange (it is also perfectly acceptable to use the zest of a lemon). When the sponge is ready, begin mixing in the rest of the flour with the sponge, then add the egg mixture. Mix everything very well, then begin kneading the dough. The dough should end up smooth, moist and fatty – but not at all sticky. To help achieve this consistency, try slamming the dough down onto the work surface about 20 times, then continue to knead. Add a small amount of flour if necessary…depending on your relative conditions. When the dough is fully kneaded, place it inside a clean bowl, cover with a towel and allow the dough to rise until it has at least doubled in size (about 60-90 minutes).


Separate the prepared dough into eight balls, making sure one of the balls is slightly larger than the rest. The seven equal-sized balls should be around 55-60 grams apiece.


Create a small opening in each ball so that you can add the filling. Select one of the seven balls and place a whole almond into the opening, then place about 1 tsp. of jam in each ball – including the one with the almond. Close the rolls well by pinching them together with your fingers (they may open slightly during the next stage, which is not a problem). Cover the rolls and leave them to rise on a clean work surface for about 20 minutes.

Go ahead and make the guss (steaming liquid) while the rolls are rising. Mix together in a pot 1,5 dl. milk with 40 gr. sugar, 40 gr. butter and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract. Gently heat the mixture while stirring together until the sugar and butter are completely melted and mixed together. Remove from the heat and reserve. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C (with the fan – otherwise heat to 220 degrees C).


Prepare a large baking pan by placing about 2/3 of the steaming liquid onto the bottom of the dish. Add the prepared rolls, placing them seam side down (if they came open during the rising period, simply pinch the dough together to seal them) – the larger roll goes in the middle, then place the seven smaller rolls around the larger one. They do not need to be too tightly formed, as they will grow together during the baking. Brush each of the rolls with some of the leftover steaming liquid, then add some almond slivers and coarse sugar (Hagelzucker in German) to each of the rolls.


Bake in the lower half of the oven for about 15 minutes, then remove the baking dish and carefully separate each of the rolls slightly from one another. Pour the remaining steaming liquid over and in between the rolls. Return to the oven for about 5-8 minutes more.

Cool slightly and enjoy warm.


If there are any leftovers, then just cover them with plastic wrap over night (don’t refrigerate them) and enjoy them the next day. They won’t be as light…but, they will still taste good.