Baboushka and the Three Kings, Crème Fraîche Custard Brioche Tart, Epiphany, Equality Cake, Festival of Epiphany, food coloring, galette des rois, gâteau des rois, Julia Child, King of the Feast, King's Cake, Mardi Gras, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Silverton, Nicolas Sidjako, Presidential Inauguration, Queen's Cake, Ruth Robbins, Three Kings
Today is a majestic day, worthy of a King’s Cake. Three grandiose events are happening: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Presidential Inauguration, and the Festival of Epiphany, when the King of Kings is celebrated. Three great figures who changed history and whose existence are closely related to the notion of equality. Did you know that the King’s Cake was once called the Equality Cake, during the French Revolution? I can’t think of a better reason to make the King’s Cake today!
The King’s Cake gets its name from the Three Kings who arrived in Bethlehem, guided by a star to find baby Jesus. It is a pastery attributed to the French (La galette des rois), who mixed the Biblical tradition of the Three Kings with an ancient Roman custom of making a cake with a bean inside and calling the servant whose portion had the bean the ‘King of the Feast.’
In French children’s literature, there are many stories about the King’s Cake, like La Galette des Rois, L’Histoire de la Galette des Rois, La Veritable Histoire de la Galette des Rois. The story hasn’t, to my knowledge, been written in English yet, but there are some good books associated with the Three Kings. My absolute favorite is Baboushka and the Three Kings, written by Ruth Robbins and illustrated by Nicolas Sidjako.
There is not just one version of the actual King’s Cake. Even in France, La galette des rois in the North is made with puff pastry and filled with a custard called frangipane, while Le gâteau des rois in the South is made with brioche, sugar, and candied fruits. Many European and South American countries today celebrate the Three Kings with a cake that is some version of the one tradition or the other. In the US, where the King’s Cake is associated with Mardi Gras, it’s a brioche covered with three colors of icing or sugar (yellow, green, and purple). And that’s the version I chose to make. But instead of icing, I used a crème fraîche custard. I followed a recipe for Crème Fraîche Custard Brioche Tart by Nancy Silverton. It’s not a King’s Cake, but it has all the characteristics of one, and it is shaped like a crown. Plus it is so delicious, it is famous for making Julia Child literally cry!
Nancy’s recipe needs to be followed step by step, which means you need to start making the dough the night before. I miscalculated the preparation time and baked the dough without giving it a chance for a last rise. That didn’t hurt the taste, but unfortunately it affected the crown shape: The dough rose during the baking, not just around the edge but in the middle as well, which was supposed to stay flat to hold the custard.
I couldn’t find the purple colored sugar in my local store, so I made my own. Just put sugar in a plastic bag with a drop or two of food coloring and shake. Voilà!
I had the crown. The only thing missing now was the bean. The tradition began with a dried bean. Later on, people started using porcelaine and precious metals. The American version calls for a small plastic baby that represents Jesus. The only precious metal I have is my wedding ring, and I don’t want to risk it being swallowed by anyone. I also decline to stick a symbolically sacred figure in dough, put it in an oven, and then watch it roll around in some kid’s saliva. So I stick to the old tradition and use a bean, my favorite bean: a chickpea! “Chickpea? Oh là là! Mais c’est scandaleux!”
Before baking, I put the bean in the dough. By the time the cake was done, its volume had tripled. I realized that since we might not serve the entire cake to our small circle of guests, we risked not finding the bean and therefore not having a king or a queen. As a solution, I cut the cake and hid a bean (a second one) in one of the portions.
And… the King’s Cake gave us a queen. So a Queen’s Cake it is!
The queen traditionally chooses her king. Many tried to charm her.
But fate decided otherwise. Remember, in this cake there were two beans. While everyone was taken with the celebration, the second bean was discovered in another piece of cake. Someone was destined to be a king!