Epiphany, on the twelfth night after Christmas, is celebrated throughout Provence. Three clay figurines, representing the Rois mages (the three kings—Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspard), are added to the Crèche in each home. Families and friends celebrate la fête des Rois, which ends with a big cake in which a tiny china figure or dried white bean is hidden. Whoever finds the figure is the sacred king of the day. He chooses his queen, receives a toast, and must invite the whole group the following week to share a second galette des Rois and drink champagne or vin cuit. Tirer les Rois is a wonderful reason for gathering with friends to chat, drink, and eat throughout the whole month of January.
Children in Nice are told that if they get up at midnight on Epiphany Eve, wear a wet nightgown, hold a tree branch and stand on the roof or on a high branch of a tree, they will see the Kings marching toward the church. A good thing they enjoy the galette des Rois before such an ordeal!
This is not a very sweet cake. The sweetness of the candied fruits and sugar on top is enhanced by the fresh, light texture of the cake itself. Start the cake the day before you plan to serve it. You can make the golden crown from some metallic Christmas paper or gilded cardboard—wonderful for a children’s party. The proportions given here are for two large cakes. Whatever is left over can be frozen.
Mix the yeast with the lukewarm water and let it sit for 5 minutes. Put ¾ cup of the flour in a bowl, make a well in the center and add the dissolved yeast. Knead for 3 minutes, then make a ball of the dough. Let it rest in the bowl and cover it with more lukewarm water. Let it stand in a warm place about 15 minutes, or until the ball floats to the top.
Put 4¼ cups of the flour in a large bowl, make a well in the center and add half of the butter, milk, eggs, egg yolks, orange and lemon rind, and salt. Blend them and knead well. Add the ball of yeasty dough and knead for 15 minutes. Knead in the remaining butter until the dough is smooth and no longer clings to the bowl. Place this in a greased bowl and cover with a damp towel. Heat the oven to 200° for 2 minutes, turn it off, and place the bowl there (or another warm place) to let the dough rise until double in bulk —about 1½ hours. Punch it down. Let it double in size again—1 more hour. Punch down and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, soak the glacéed fruits in the rum for 2 hours. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature.
Drain the fruits. Reserve about 10 cherries and some angelica to decorate the top. Flour the rest so they will not sink to the bottom of the batter during baking. Reserve the rum for garnish.
Knead the floured fruit into the dough and form two balls. Place each ball on a floured table and make a hole in the center of each with your fingers, then stretch the dough to form a 2-inch-wide ring with a diameter of 6 to 8 inches. Place both rings on buttered cookie sheets with a custard cup or something similar in the center to keep the hole open. With kitchen shears, cut little notches all around the edge of the rings. Place in a warm place about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Paint the surface of the rings with the mixture of egg whites and milk and sprinkle the sugar and rum on top.
Carefully hide the figurine or bean inside the cake. Garnish the top with the cherries and angelica. Make golden paper crowns to fit the center of each cake and place them in the hole before serving.
© 1990 Mireille Johnston estate. All rights reserved.