From Too Many Chefs -

January 7, 2005
King for a day

FEVEThe fete des rois is one of those charming traditions that make France such a lovely place to live. Is it just coincidence that most of these traditions have evolved (or is it devolved?) to the point where they are just culinary traditions? In this case, the festival is marked with a sweet almond cake, a hidden "bean" and a crown for the day for the lucky person to find the bean. According to legend, the origin of this festival dates back to Roman times, when the king of the January Saturnalia festival was elected by means of a bean hidden in a loaf of sweet bread. Another story has medieval peasants baking a cake for their local "kings" in January to accompany the payment of annual tithes. Yet another medieval story links the cake-with-a-bean tradition to monks using it to elect the head of the monastary for the year. Moving into the realm of relative certainty, we know that by the time of the French revolution the tradition was associated with kings and the coming of the three Magi because it was temporarily renamed the fête de l'Egalité! And today, the cake is again firmly linked with the 6th of January, or Epiphany.

There are quite a few rituals that have grown around this Epiphany cake. Since the 1960s, the bean - originally a real dried bean - has developped into a small ceramic figurine. These can take any form, from a king or saint to a popular cartoon figure, but are still called fèves (beans). They are now highly collectible and you can find them in flea markets and junk shops. Another tradition is that of setting aside pieces for absent friends or missing sailors; if the cake remains whole and free of mold the prognosis is good for a safe return of loved ones.

Another tradition has the smallest child hide under a table (i.e. out of sight of the cake) and designate who should receive each piece as it is cut: this is to ensure fairness in the lottery of who will receive the piece with the bean! The child is also sometimes asked to name which piece will be saved for the first stranger to visit the house - an act of generosity and kindness for the new year. And lastly, of course, there is the fact that the person who finds a bean in his or her piece of cake has to wear a silly paper crown and supply the cake for next year!

All in all, it's a silly, sweet and satisfying tradition. There are several versions of the cake, depending on which region of France you are in, but the most universal (and probably most recent innovation) is a simple concoction of pâte feuilleté with a soft frangipan center. Flaky, golden and full of almond sweetness it's a satisfying delicious bite. It's hard to avoid in January: you'll find them showing up at work for an informal tea break, or after dinner at any and every dinner party.

I have never made one myself, because they are so easy to find in every bakery in France. (All you have to do is walk through the door to be seduced by the sweet almond scent and end up buying a big gateau...) However, if you are interested in making your own cake and can get by in French, you could follow the recipe on our friend Pascale's site C'est moi qui l'ai fait! I was going to give it a try this year, but yesterday was a busy day for me and my little bean and so I bought the last one available in our local bakery. It was delicious and the bean was a deliciously appropriate one: the Critic found a little figure with the word "papa" inscribed on it in his piece of cake. I kid you not: how appropriate was that for a man who has just become papa to a new son?!?

Posted by Meg in Sussex at January 7, 2005 9:42 AM | TrackBack

We had "une galette" at lunch today. My daughter Amber, aged 7, hid under the table and shouted out a name for each slice. She then ripped open her slice and, lo and behold, she had the "fève!" But she didn't eat all her slice as, in truth, she prefers winning the prize than eating the cake. The little beans have accumulated over the years and the kids have a pot stuffed full of them.
As for the Critic and the "papa" bean: he always was jammy, just like at snooker....

Posted by Jules on January 7, 2005 at 11:18 AM

Carnival kicked off yesterday, and in New Orleans a king cake is traditional as well. I wish I could say it were as tasty as the cakes in France and Spain. Here the king cake is a rather dry cake topped with an overly sweet icing. It taste like a cinnamon roll, although with out the spice. The white icing is colored bright yellow, green and purple, the colors of Mardi Gras.

Posted by Todd in New Orleans on January 7, 2005 at 12:31 PM

Forgot to mention that the king cake always comes with a baby inside.

Posted by Todd in New Orleans on January 7, 2005 at 12:31 PM

Todd, the cake can vary in France too according to some of the stories I've read, though in Paris the almond one is ubiquitous. It can also be a brioche bread or a fougasse (a provencale cake) and can be in the form of a crown instead of a plain cake shape. I think the almond one is probably the nicest though! It's pretty easy to make if you decide to try your own: it just takes a couple of pâte feuilletés et some almond paste with an egg yolk to baste the top of the cake!

If you are interested in the history, I found this site which has some information in English:

A baby is a morbid thing to have in the cake - any idea what the origin of that is??

Posted by Meg in Paris on January 7, 2005 at 2:20 PM

Julian, give Amber my congratulations! The crown is the most exciting part - she's absolutely right! (I hope you made sure her slice of cake didn't go to waste though??)

Posted by Meg in Paris on January 7, 2005 at 2:21 PM

No idea on the origin of the baby. It is morbid.

Posted by Todd on January 9, 2005 at 1:07 PM

According to Mardi Gras Unmasked, the baby commemorates the Magis search for the Baby Jesus (they didn't have Google back then).

Posted by barrett on January 9, 2005 at 9:17 PM