Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrated on January 6th, marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Carnival (which concludes with the beginning Lent).

January 6th, which is 12 days after Christmas in the Gregorian calendar, is also known as Twelfth Night.

It can get confusing: Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day, the Day of Kings and the Fête des Rois in French. It’s the day that the Three Kings (les rois) appeared in Bethlehem bearing gifts for Baby Jesus.

And it’s celebrated with a special cake.
 
 
HOW TO CELEBRATE EPIPHANY

Epiphany is celebrated with parties for children and adults alike. Whatever the food served, the “must have” is a Galette Des Rois (photos #1 and #2), otherwise known as an Epiphany Cake.

The cake is a frangipane* tart made with pastry and ground almonds. In France, people enjoy it throughout January, regardless of religious background.

Composed of two circles of puff pastry (pâte feuilleté) with frangipane pastry cream in between, each cake comes with a charm or other trinket, called a fève, or bean†, baked into it. A gold paper crown sits on top.

The person who gets the slice with the charm becomes “king” or “queen” for the day and gets to wear the gold paper crown. But it’s an entailed honor: By tradition, the king has to provide next year’s galette.

You can bake one: Here’s an Epiphany Cake recipe from the two-Michelin-star French chef Héléne Darroze.

But most people head to the nearest French bakery to buy one.
 
 
THE HISTORY OF GALETTE DES ROIS

Hiding some type of token in food is a pre-Christian tradition, with roots in the Roman feast of Saturnalia‡. When the Church later instituted the Feast of The Epiphany to celebrate the arrival of the three wise kings, the tradition of the bean in the cake remained.

The Galette Des Rois as we know it first appeared in the 14th-century [source].

This cake is round and flat, cut into the pantry, covered with a white napkin and carried into a dining room.
The celebration was adopted by other countries, to a more or less extent.

  • In the south of France, the preference is for a brioche-style cake covered with candied fruit. In Western France, the cake is shortbread-style with fillings such as chocolate-pear and raspberry [source].
  • In the U.K., in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, fruitcakes with a hidden bean were covered in marzipan and topped with crowns. The day was reserved for revelry and games.
  • In New Orleans the a similar cake, called King Cake, is used for Lent—the bookend to the Carnival season. With the same cake and crown, it’s easy to confuse the two holidays. The difference is that King Cake is decorated in sugars the colors of New Orleans: purple, gold and green.
  • During the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI was beheaded, the feast still occurred—but the cake was renamed “Gâteau de l’Egalité” (cake of equality). Since the cry of the people was “Down with the king,” anything called “king” was renamed, even though the cake referred to the Three Wise Men.
  •  
    New Orleans was founded in spring of 1718 by French colonists, who brought their culture, including food, wine and religion.

    Centuries later, the Mardi Gras festival was established, and the Epiphany Cake became the King Cake.
     
     
    TRADITIONAL VS. MODERN

    While traditionalists like cakes in the photos, others bake outside the box.

  • Fauchon has created a galette in the shape of a giant pair of lips, adding passion fruit, raspberry and rose petals to the recipe.
  • Dalloyau created a “crystal galette,” with touches of bitter orange and Papua New Guinean vanilla. They’ve even added crystals to the crown (photo #5)
  • Chef Laurent Fau placed a Black Forest Cake cherry rim around the galette.
  • Here’s a galette inserted into a pastry tea pot (cake and tea).
  • ________________

    *WHAT IS FRANGIPANE? Frangipane is a dense pastry cream flavored with almond paste. The almond paste base is enriched with sugar, butter and eggs. (Alternatively, milk, sugar, flour, eggs and butter are mixed with ground almonds). It is related to marzipan, which also has a base of almond paste. A key difference is that frangipane is a spreadable cream, and marzipan is a semi-hard almond candy.

    †Modern trinkets can include anything from a charm to a coin. In earlier days, a bean was more available.

    ‡Saturnalia, a festival spanning December 17-23, honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Festivals were organized in honor of the gods between late December and early January. A dry bean would be hidden in a dish prepared for the household staff (slave servants). The slave who got that helping would be given the “kingship,” which included drinking, gambling and general bawdiness. Many Christian celebrations date back to pagan customs. They were adapted by Christians to make religious conversion more familiar to pagans. The Christian festival of the Epiphany is even older than Christmas and Easter [source].

     

    Galette Des Rois
    [1] Famed patissier Ladurée fills the puff pastry with almond cream — typical—adds toasted almonds, and decorates the top with confit of mandarine topped with a crunchy biscuit (cookie) of nougatine (link). (is this almond croquante?)

    Galette Des Rois
    [2] Beautiful galettes from the great Parisian pâtissier Pierre Hermé.


    [3] Pierre Hermé adds some color—and two chocolate treats—to this galette.

    [4] Modern chefs add their own creative touches (photo © Breads Bakery | NYC).


    [5] After centuries of tradition, some pastry chefs are ready for a major change, like this “Crystal Cake” from French pâtissier Dalloyau. (photo © Dalloyau).

     

      


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