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.