The ritual of the thing—and the accompanying wine—may be more amusing than the pastry itself. The gâteau des Rois in the Parisian region—and, generally, in northern France—is a simple galette of puff pastry, the surface crisscrossed with a knife tip and painted with egg before being baked; sometimes it is a confection, less fanciful in form but resembling in composition a Pithiviers, of sweet, buttered, and lightly egg-bound almond paste, spread between plate-sized rounds of puff paste. Throughout the southern half of France, it is a ring of leavened pastry, brioche-like, whose composition varies greatly from one region to another and from one baker to another: The dough may be less richly endowed with butter and eggs; a heavy, sweet syrup in which grated orange and lemon peel have been cooked is often added as well as a liqueur of some sort (or some orange blossom water); a variety of candied fruits, citrus dominating, may join or replace the cherries. A gâteau des Rois contains either a dried bean or a small porcelain or plastic trinket (known, in any case, as la fève, or broad bean) and the person whose portion of pastry contains it is crowned king or queen for the evening.
A celebration of the Epiphany (although scholars suggest that its origins may be pagan), its sacred significance has long been tenuous; the devout during the seventeenth century abominated the tradition of the gâteau des Rois because of the excessive debauchery to which it led. Prosper-Montagné cites a tract from the period whose tone suggests that the author may have been a temperance leader:
Large groups gather (on the Twelfth-Night) to elect a king; he chooses his cabinet members and then the celebration begins, continuing for days with the festivities multiplying until all purses are empty and the creditors arrive.
The sons hasten to imitate the example; they elect their king also and organize elaborate banquets either with stolen money or at their parents’ expense, the better to school themselves in the ways both of luxury and of larceny.
Nowadays the game is an innocent excuse for friends to gather together and drink a couple of bottles of Champagne; it is apparently still great fun, for hardly is everyone recovered from celebrating the advent of the New Year than people begin gathering to tirer les Rois and it goes on throughout the month of January, the person crowned being designated as the next to receive; quite distinguished company is apt to turn loud and bawdy in the joyous atmosphere. (If you want to play the game, you will need, in addition to the ingredients listed, a gilt, cardboard crown . . .)
It is as well not to attempt the following preparation during the hot summer months. Use, if possible, a marble slab for kneading and forming the pastry and a flexible, plastic pastry cook’s corne for scraping. I have used “instant-blending” flour in this recipe (not because I prefer it for this kind of recipe, but because it more nearly resembles its American equivalent than ordinary pastry flour); it weighs about ⅔ ounce more per cup than regular flour—if weighing instead of measuring, count 12 ounces flour, in all.
Add tepid water to the yeast and sugar (first mashing them together if using compressed yeast), leave in a warm place for about 15 minutes to ferment, and stir the flour in, progressively, until the dough is only just stiff enough to handle—a bit less firm than ordinary bread dough. Scrape out onto a lightly floured marble and knead for about 10 minutes, pushing sections of the dough repeatedly away from yourself with the heel of your hand. Scrape your hand clean, form the dough into a ball, lightly floured so that it will not stick to your hand, and heave it, repeatedly and mercilessly, against the marble. Form it again into a ball, lightly floured, return it to the mixing bowl, and leave, covered with a tea towel, in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in volume.
Stir the eggs and the ¼ cup butter into the salted flour and beat, either with an electric mixer or with a wooden spoon, for a long time—until the batter is elastic, the surface glistening and slippery in aspect.
Combine the dough and the batter in the largest of the mixing bowls, mix loosely at first, until the dough no longer resists, and then stir in a wide circle with a wooden spoon, held vertically, grasped firmly in your fist, forearm held at a right angle to the spoon handle, the motion directed from the shoulder, until completely unified. Add the cup of butter, either pinched into small fragments or squeezed repeatedly through your fingers (approximately 1-ounce chunks at a time) to soften it and disperse it to the point of being readily absorbable. Mix, as before, but only until the butter is completely absorbed.
Scrape the dough down from the sides of the mixing bowl, cover with a plate, and leave at room temperature—68° to 70°—for about 5 hours, away from drafts (the bowl may be placed in the middle of a bed, the corners and edges of a heavy blanket lifted loosely up and over it). Scrape the dough loose from the sides and beat it until reduced to its original, unleavened volume. Leave, covered, long enough to begin rising again—½ hour or so—and refrigerate overnight.
The following day, turn the chilled dough out onto a lightly floured marble, scraping it free from the bottom of the bowl, flip it over to flour all surfaces, flatten slightly, press the bean and all but a dozen of the cherries into the surface, and roll the mass in such a way as to enclose the garnish, forming it rapidly, partly by rolling and partly by molding with your hands, into a sausage something over 2 feet long, the ends slightly tapered. Shape in a circle, twisting the ends lightly around each other to simulate a simple knot, and transfer, lifting the ring rapidly with both hands, to a thinly buttered pastry plaque placed beside the marble. Re-form it neatly, embed the remaining cherries in the surface, and leave in a slightly warm corner of the kitchen, covered with a tea towel, for about 2 hours or until approximately doubled in volume. Paint all exposed surfaces with the beaten egg-yolk mixture, sprinkle lightly with sugar, and bake for 40 minutes, starting in a 450° oven that is then turned down to 400°. Turn it around after 25 minutes or so if not coloring evenly (or, if coloring too rapidly, lay a sheet of aluminum foil lightly over the surface—it should, however, be a rich, deep, burnished golden brown when cooked). Slip onto a pastry grill to cool—or partly cool (it is best eaten freshly baked and, preferably, warm).
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.