Sunday, January 6, 2008

Merry "Little Christmas"

"Now there appeared a brilliant Star

Which led the Wise Men from afar.

In the United States, the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 13, so the twelfth day is on Christmas Day. Other cultures celebrate the twelve days of Christmas too. However, December 25 is considered to be the first day of Christmas, and the twelfth day is January 6. Three Kings Day is the gift-giving time, rather than Christmas day. Just as it is common for children to leave cookies for Santa, in some cultures it is customary for children to leave shoes boxes out on the night of January 5, often filling them with hay for the camels, in hopes that the Three Kings would be generous. 

According to tradition, the names of the Kings are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. On the night when Jesus was born, the three Kings saw a bright star and began their journey to Bethlehem. There they found the infant Jesus and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On the "Feast of the Epiphany", which means "manifestation", we remember how the three Kings traveled and followed the light of the miraculous Star which led them to Jesus. The Three Kings did not travel alone. They traveled in each other's company.

In our house, "Little Christmas" (Epiphany) is celebrated with Epiphany Cupcakes. I started this family tradition when my children were very young. Besides being easier than baking the traditional Kings Day Cake, it was more fun for the kids. Of course, one could use their favorite boxed cake recipe but I usually made the cupcakes from scratch and hid a small cherry in one of the cupcakes. The child who got the cherry also got a small gift. With this gift came two responsibilities. One was to help bake the cupcakes the following year (Epiphany Eve) and the other was to lead the prayer for "Little Christmas Dinner".

There are many popular customs surrounding Three Kings Day, serving Christmas time Lamb's wool was another we shared. An old English drink made with roasted apples, sugar, spices, and heated ale, Lamb's wool made its first visit to our house in 1979 and remained for many years later. For those who preferred a concoction minus the ale, we had eggnog. Our Kings Day Dinner was also one darned in simplicity. While the cupcakes were prepared the night before, so was the sauce for the stuffed shells with. Yes, stuffed shells. Kids love stuffed shells, well our little guests did anyway. They're so easy to prepare, even easier to handle, and the children don't get pasta toppled all over their dishes. One shell leads to another and another and before long, they have actually eaten their entire dinner. Oh, eating by candlelight may have helped:) It's been a eons since I made pasta shells from scratch but, it can be done. I must add, the stuffed shells were trimmed with an enormous antipasta (you say antipasto, I say antipasta.) I suppose a more "grown-up dinner would be like the French meal I discovered in the book by Sula Benet, Festive Menus 'Round the World. Published in 1957, her Three Kings' Day Dinner is comprised of Consomme, Barquettes of Oysters, Salmon in Bernaise Sauce, White Wine, Lamb with Braised Lettuce, Red Wine, Stuffed Hearts of Artichokes, Lettuce and Beet Salad, Coffee, Cheese, Bread, Ice Cream, Brandy, and King's Cake. (Galette Des Rois)

King's Cake is traditionally served on Epiphany. Today, the cake can be purchased from bakeries all over the world. There are many variations with the most simple and perhaps most traditional brioche, a sweetened yeast bread. In Latin America, a figurine representing the Christ child is hidden inside the cake. In some parts of Europe, finding a bean or a pea in their slice, will make a child King or Queen for the day. In other cultures, the cake may contain a coin, a bean, pea or a nut. In France, where the cake is made of a very fluffy dough and covered with fluffy flakes, it used to be presented by the bakers to their customers in appreciation of their patronage.

The traditional attraction which concludes every dinner on this day is the magnificent galette des rois, the cake of Kings. The origins of this speciality has been traced back into pre-Christian days, when it was customary to bake a bean into the cake. Whoever found the bean was "elected" to be the "King" of the day and his word was law in the family circle. This custom has prevailed to the present day and the King presides over the dinner, Sometimes, a china doll is also mixed into the dough before baking. Festive Menus Round the World p.63

I have seen King's Cake in bakeries throughout the season of Epiphany sometimes until Mardi Gras. I think its wonderful as the cake is simply delicious and shouldn't be hidden all year. I "traveled" to the French Embassy thinking they would have a traditional recipe for Galette Des Rois but, alas, the three ingredients were, frozen puffed pastry, eggs and almond paste. While looking for a French recipe with a little more charm and depth, I did come across this one with detailed ingredients and effective illustrations. The cake they eat most traditionally in northern France is a flat round cake with an almond/butter filling called frangipane. Here's a recipe. I'm in search of a recipe similar to the one in the book I mentioned above. I guess it would just be easier to bring it to you here.

Galette Des Rois
10 oz. sifted flour
juice of 1 lemon
pinch of salt
8 oz. butter
1 beaten egg
3 tbs. jam
1/2 pint sweet cream, whipped
2 oz. sugar
few drops vanilla
1/4 c. glace' fruit
Sift flour onto a board. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add lemon juice, salt, and if necessary, a little water to make a smooth paste. Press butter into a flat square and dredge with flour. roll paste large enough to envelope butter. Cover butter with paste and press the edges together. Let stand for 15 minutes. Roll out lightly into a long strip. Fold strip and repeat rolling after 15 minutes. Repeat three more times. Let dough rest for 5 minutes. Then roll out dough into a round shape about 1/2 inch thickness. Make small incision all around the cake with the point of a knife. Brush with beaten egg. Decorate top with diamond and crescent shapes made of scraps of dough. Bake in hot oven for 20-25 minutes. Let cool. Cut cake in half and spread bottom layer with jam. Replace top and garnish with stiffly beaten cream mixed with sugar and vanilla, and glace' fruit.
"In northern France, among other places in the world, epiphany is celebrated with a galette des rois or King's cake. This is a pastry that isn't really a cake and isn't really a pie. Also called a Pithiviers, after the village in France just north of the Loire where it originated, it's made of puff pastry with a filling of almond powder or almond paste, butter and eggs..."(blog & recipe)
"The King Cake is believed to have been brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, from France in the 1870's. It evolved from the Twelfth Night or Epiphany pastry made by those early settlers. They added their own touches with the Spanish custom of choosing Twelfth Night royalty. The royal colors of purple, green and gold on the cake honors the three kings who visited the Christ child on Epiphany more & recipe

In Italy Epiphany (La Befana) is festival in which the "Befana," a kindly witch, bestows gifts on children. Naughty children get lumps of charcoal and garlic. Legends tells us that Befana was busy cleaning and sweeping when the Three Kings stopped by.  She was too busy to go with them to see the Christ Child and set out on her own later but she got lost and she is still looking for Him.

1. The Epiphany Table
2. January 6th-the Alternate Christmas
3. Mardi Gras King Cake @ Rosa's Yummy Yums


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  2. I like the idea of the Epiphany cupcakes, as I couldn't bring myself to bake yet another cake this weekend. Will have to try Lambs Wool - that sounds tasty. Of course, I think you've given me permission to try the Three Kings Cake up until Mardis Gras!

  3. The cupcakes really work out well, and the kids love them!

    Absolutely! Enjoy The Three Kings Cake 'til Mardis Gras and beyond...


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none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise