Food & Wine

King cakes search out Epiphany

Courtesy of Yuichi Sakuraba
A traditional French galette des rois.

After the trees come down and New Year’s Eve goes out with a bang, the story of the Nativity stretches on with a galette des rois, or king cake. Bakeries around the world stock a special cake starting this week that pays tribute to the Three Kings you’ve heard of in Christmas carols.

 It makes a consoling excuse for a post holiday bake-off with a pretty facade hiding deceptively simple technique.

The northern French version of the cake, familiar in many English-speaking kitchens, layers an almond paste between sweet or puff pastry, the top decorated with slashes, leaves or layers that puff up to resemble a crown. The iconic Louisiana-style king cake tops a ring of twisted yeasted dough with drizzles of icing and sugar sprinkles colored in the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras.

With a nod to my love of Parisian tradition, I have always chosen to cut out rounds of ready-made puff pastry and fill them with homemade frangipane, a simple mixture of butter, sugar, egg and ground almonds. If you buy your pastry ready-made, the cake can come together after the minimal whiz of a food processor.

The one requirement that carries across every style: You must hide within the cake a prize – originally, in France, a fève, or dried bean, to be found by one lucky eater. Over time, tiny porcelain and even plastic figurines came to supplant the bean. A paper crown often sold with the cakes can crown the king or queen who chomps the fève. I use an almond, having a fear of biting down on anything more substantial in my slice.

The Provencal French galette des rois looks like a close cousin of Louisana’s Mardi Gras cake. In southern France, the crown-shaped brioche features big rocks of sugar and streaks of color from candied fruit. In Bulgaria, the New Year’s banitsa cake of coiled dough filled with white cheese also hides a charm, lucky sprig of dogwood or folded-up wish for good fortune. Greek New Year’s Day bread, vasilopita, hides a coin, the Portuguese bolo rey sports nuts and raisins as well as dried fruit, and the Spanish roscón de reyes, looking a great deal like the Provencal gateau, often hides a tiny baby Jesus trinket.

The stories behind why and how we make the cake offer a speedy tour of a wintry church calendar – depending on tradition, the cakes come into full bloom on the Día de los Reyes Magos, Candlemas or Twelfth Night. The Christian season of Epiphany begins 12 days after Christmas, and the world rituals that surround its start draw from medieval and even pagan roots. In the American South, the cake’s time gets an extension beyond this month all the way to Shrove Tuesday, whose Mardi Gras parties celebrate a final spurt of sweets before fasting begins for Lent, the period of contemplation before Easter in the Christian calendar.

One tradition holds that the cake should be divided up to leave one slice over after all have been served, the part du Bon Dieu or de la Vierge (a slice for God or the Virgin Mary).

You can add your own traditions to the basic cake – consult one of the many recipes available online for a sensible ratio of butter, sugar, almond and egg necessary for the filling, and then go wild, adding your own hint of orange-flower water and cardamom syrup, jam, chocolate, matcha powder or fruit.

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