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Food for Thought, World Languages

Let Them Eat Cake!

Galette de Rois
Galette de Rois
Photo courtesy Marianna Vertsman

Throughout Europe and Latin America, the beginning of a new year is marked by the ancient tradition of celebrating the feast of Epiphany with a delicious, baked pastry. A variety of Twelfth Night or King's Day cakes are baked to celebrate the bringing of gifts by the Magi to the Christ child, 12 days after his birth. 


France, Spain, England, Greece, Portugal, Mexico, Puerto Rico,  the Dominican Republic, and the city of New Orleans all have their own unique versions of such cakes. 

King and Queens
King and Queen,  NYPL Digital Collection, Image 825434

Elements of crowning a random commoner can be traced back to ancient history, such as the tradition of appointing a king for a single day in Pagan Europe in observance of Winter Solstice.

Of such holidays, the well-known and often misunderstood Roman festival of Saturnalia, traditionally held on December 17, is commonly portrayed as a festival of license and transgression. Saturnalia was infamous for its unrestrained revelry—even the statue of Saturn, bound for the rest of the year, was unwrapped for the festivities . 

This holiday's wild customs were extended to all members of society, as the mock king for the day presided over amusements of drinking and gambling—and his outrageous commands had to be obeyed by all. Deceptive appearances were in order, as people would enjoy exchanging worthless gifts with one another.

By the fourth century, traditional Roman customs were transferred to new holidays of the season. On the present-day Irish holiday of Nollaig na mBan, also known as Little Christmas or Women's Christmas, men do all the housework while women enjoy being pampered in regal fashion.  

Rosca de Reyes cake
Rosca de Reyes
Photo courtesy Marianna Vertsman

Modern-day  Celebrations

Current Epiphany celebrations around the world traditionally fall on January 6. In Mexico, Three Kings Day involves a festive family meal commemorating  the visit of the three Kings to the newborn Jesus Christ. The traditional King's Day cake, Rosca de Reyes, is an oval, sweet bread decorated with colorful candied fruit and icing, and hiding an item you do not wish to find in your slice of cake—a tiny plastic figurine of baby Jesus. If you do find it, you're responsible for hosting the holiday of El Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas Day. 

A similar custom is observed in New Orleans and throughout parts of the Gulf Coast. In the beginning of the year, local bakeries produce colorful iced brioches using the traditional colors of Mardi Gras, with each purple, green, and yellow cake containing a plastic baby or trinket.

The Portuguese also make a version of King's Day cake, Bolo Rei, a ring-shaped cake mixed with port, stuffed with candied fruit, and made available throughout the Christmas season. In Portugal, the finder of a bean hidden within has to provide the next year's cake. The almond concealed within the rounds of Swiss and German sweet rolls known as Dreikönigskuchen confers kingship on the lucky finder.

The beloved French family custom of feasting on a King's Day cake is steeped in traditional rituals. The cake, the famed Galette de Rois, is a round flaky pastry filled with frangipane, a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, and eggs. Always sold with a crown, Galette de Rois contains a fève, a tiny porcelain figurine representing the nativity, a tradition since the 18th century. 

With its own museum and annual collectors' fairs in Paris and Blain, fève has gradually become a treasured collectible, and an artisanal pottery fabric maker in Clamecy is the only remaining  manufacturer of the valuable china tokens. Once a family is ready to cut into the Galette de Rois, the youngest family member must crawl under the table and decide how the cake is to be distributed. The lucky fève recipient is then crowned king or a queen for the day.

Taking Part in New York City

A number of French bakeries here in New York City usually offer this treat through the end of January.  Financier, Maison Kayser and Cannelle all deserve recognition for their superb quality, flawless presentation, and porcelain fèves. 

New York City also has its own well-established Three King's Day traditions including the communal celebration of the annual Three King's Day Parade that's been held by El Museo del Barrio for the past four decades. (While this year's parade was cancelled due to inclement weather, the tradition is scheduled to resume next year.) The parade begins at 106th Street and Lexington Avenue, and features camels, floats, and thousands of participants. Most revelers wear a crown and will probably eat their own traditional version of a King's Day cake. 

If you need a cake recipe for your own private celebration, take a look at the following  titles related to various international baking traditons. Please feel free to share your favorite recipe or a treasured family custom in the comments below.

 

Baking Chez Moi book cover

The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot

The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer with Martha Rose Shulman

Danish Cooking and Baking Traditions by Arthur L. Meye

Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from my Paris home to Your Home Anywhere by Dorie Greenspan

Pâtisserie Gluten Free: The Art of French Pastry: Cookies, Tarts, Cakes and Puff Pastries by Patricia Austin

New Orleans Chef's Table : Extraordinary Recipes from the French Quarter to the Garden District by Lorin Gaudin

Dulce: Desserts in the Latin-American Tradition by Joseluis Flores and Laura Zimmerman Maye

Spain: The Cookbook by Simone and Inés Ortega 

Pastry: A Master Class for Everyone, in 150 photos and 50 recipes by Richard Bertinet

Un año de dulces by Alma Obregón

Pastelería / recetas de Marianne Magnier-Moreno

BakeClass by Anneka Manning

Have Your Cake and Eat It by Mich Turner 

Cake, I Love You by Jill O'Connor

Baker's Royale: 75 Twists on All Your Favorite Sweets by Naomi Robinson

Lomelino's Pies: A Sweet Celebration of Pies, Galettes, and Tarts by Linda Lomelino

 
 

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