Celebrating the visit of the Magi to the Infant Christ, la Fête de l'Épiphanie was set as le 6 janvier, the Twelfth (and last) Day of Christmas, by Pope Julius II. This is the day when the three kings are traditionally added next to the crèche. This celebration is another example of the church co-opting a pagan festival in order to make the church more acceptable to the unconverted. In this case, the pagan festival was the Roman Saturnalia.
From the Middle Ages, l'Épiphanie has been celebrated in France with a special Twelfth Night cake: la galette des rois, literally the King's cake. The galette differed from region to region: for example, it is made of puff pastry in Paris, but made of brioche and shaped as a crown in Provence.
Under Louis XIV, the Church considered this festival too pagan a celebration, often being treated as an excuse for over-indulgence, and it was consequently banned. To get around this ban, it became known in some areas as la fête du bon voisinage (literally, 'good neighbors feast'). The culinary tradition survived la révolution Française when it became known as the Gâteau de l’Égalité (Equality cake), since Kings were not very popular in that period!
The cake contains a charm, une fève. Whoever found the fève in their slice of cake became King or Queen for the day, and was given a crown to wear. The fève traditionally has been made of china, though today it is common to find them made of plastic, which doesn't have the same charm as the china. The fève can take any shape or form and can either be very plain or more sophisticated (glazed or hand painted). In times less secular than today, the fève represented a religious figure such as the baby Jesus, but now it can be virtually anything. Little horseshoe shapes are popular as they are thought to bring luck. The old-fashioned china fèves are still used and they have become collectable items - you can even find them on E-Bay!
The Galette des Rois common in l' Île-de-France, the Paris basin, is made of puff pastry and is filled with frangipane, an almond-flavoured paste. It is sold in all French bakeries and eating the galette at the beginning of janvier is still a very popular tradition and an opportunity for families and friends to gather around the table. The youngest person in the room (usually a child) hides under the table and shouts out in which order the guests should be given each slice of cake, to avoid favoritism on the part of the server. (The child, then, becomes the arbiter of favors!) The person who finds the fève in their slice of galette becomes the King or Queen for the night, chooses a consort and is given a paper crown.
Louis la Vache will now give you a recipe for Galette des Rois. Louis warns you that making the puff pastry can be tricky. The dough must be kept very cool as it is being made up or it won't puff properly. Louis will not be offended if you use frozen puff pastry dough!
Galette des Rois
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold water
8 oz. unsalted butter, softened, but NOT room temperature.
1. Place the butter between two sheets of plastic wrap. With a rolling pin, pound the butter flat to a thickness of approximately 1/ 4".
2. Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl. Add 1/2 cup of cold water, stir, then knead quickly with your fingertips until a firm dough is formed.
3. Shape into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
4. Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface that has been lightly dusted with flour. Flatten the dough with a fist then roll it out to form a square of 8 in x 8 inches. Place the butter in the center of the dough. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter, like an envelope.
5. Roll out the dough on the lightly floured work surface to incorporate the butter and form a rectangle. The dough should not be too firm.
6. Fold the dough in half, making a square again. Seal the edges with a rolling pin. This is called "the first turn of the pastry."
7. Wrap the dough in waxed paper or plastic wrap, place it in the refrigerator and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
8. Repeat this step until "six turns" have been completed. Seal the edges between turns.
9. Allow to rest in refrigerator at each "turn". After the sixth turn the puff pastry is ready to use.
The secret to getting the pastry to puff is to keep the dough and the butter cool while making the "turns."
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely ground, blanched almonds
une fève (If you cannot locate china or plastic fèves, a dry bean will work. Fève means "dry bean.")
1 egg, lightly beaten
Beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Stir in the first two eggs, one at a time. Then blend in the ground almonds.
Assembly and finishing:
Preheat oven to 400º.
1. Place chilled dough on a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough in two and roll each half out to a 12" round. Leave one round out, place the other back in the refrigerator for the time being. Place one of the pastry rounds on a baking sheet that has been covered with lightly greased parchment paper.
2. Spread the almond mixture over the pastry round and place the fève in the mixture.
3. Beat the remaining egg and brush some of it over the edges of the pastry, reserving some of the egg. Place the other pastry round on top and seal well. The egg helps seal the edges.
4. Use a sharp knife to make patterns in the pastry. Brush the rest of the beaten egg on the top.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Decorate the cake with a golden paper crown and serve warm. Whoever finds the fève, wears the crown as "king or queen for the day".
This recette is also posted at The Frog Blog of Louis la Vache
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Christmas in France