In France, Christmas is traditionally when family gets together around a table. Friends gather to ring in the new year with a meal on La Saint Sylvestre, the feast day of St. Sylvester. And what a feast it is! Oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, whole poached fish, roast meat, salad, cheese, dessert... not to mention champagne and wine!
After all that, you swear you’ll never eat again, but by the time Epiphany rolls around on January 6, the gluttony has started to wear off. What’s more, les rois mages are a tradition. And who’s going to argue with tradition?
Epiphany is also called Twelfth Day - think “partridge in a pear tree” - because it comes twelve days after Christmas. The word is Greek for “appearance” and it marks the supposed date when les rois mages, the Magi, the Three Kings, appeared in Bethlehem. Legend says the white-bearded Melchior was from Persia and brought gold. The much younger Gaspar brought frankincense, which comes from southern Arabia, and especially Oman. Finally, the dark-complected Balthasar offered myrrh, which is native to Africa’s Somalia and Ethiopia. Combine that with Bethlehem in Palestine and you’ve pretty much covered the known world of Biblical times. If you look at it in that light, this Christian feast takes on a more global aspect.
So, whether wise men or kings, on January 6th, French bakeries blossom with galettes des rois, a thin pastry, often with almond paste filling and looking like a loaf of Middle Eastern unleavened bread. Or with brioches des rois, a specialty of southern France. In each you will find hidden a bean, or fève, which over the years has become a little ceramic figurine. When the galette or brioche is sliced, the youngest person present hides under the table and dictates which slice is given to which person. The one who finds the figurine - hopefully without breaking a tooth on it - is declared the king/queen, given a shiny gold crown and selects someone else to wear a second crown.
To help you ring in the new year, here’s a recipe for brioche des rois that I got from Chef Patrick Mesiano. Yes, it does take some time in the kitchen but you can turn it into a game, especially if children are involved. They love to get their hands all floury. And if you have some aggression to work out or need to burn off some Christmas calories, kneading is just the thing.
So as 2008 begins, let me wish you all amour et amitié, santé et prospérité - love and friendship, health and wealth - throughout the coming year.
- 3 T candied fruit, cut small
- 1/4 c currants
- 1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
- zest of 1 small lemon, finely minced
- 1 T dark rum
- 1 T orange blossom water
- 8.8 oz or 1 3/4 c (250 g) flour
- 10 g yeast (1½ packet of dry yeast)
- 3 T granulated sugar
- 5 T butter, cut up & softened
- 4 eggs
The night before baking, toast the pine nuts for a few minutes in the oven or in a heavy skillet (without any oil).
Wash the lemon and remove the zest with a zester or a peeler, being careful not to cut deeply, as the white skin underneath will give a bitter taste. Mince the zest finely.
In a bowl, mix the pine nuts and zest with the candied fruit and currants.
Add the dark rum and orange blossom water. Stir.
Cover with saran wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 30 min).
For the brioche:
Using an electric mixer with a flat beater (dough hook), mix together the sifted flour, a pinch of salt, the sugar, yeast and 3 eggs. If using cake yeast, crumble it and be careful that the yeast doesn’t remain in contact with the sugar before it’s mixed in or else the dough will be “burned”.
Mix at low speed until the dough comes away from the bowl (about 10 min). If you mix at too high a speed, the ingredients will emulsify.
Cut the softened butter into small pieces and add in, kneading for another 10 min at low speed, until the dough again comes away from the bowl.
Then add the candied fruit with its juice and mix for about 30 seconds.
Take the dough out of the mixer and put it in a bowl. Cover and let rise for 30 min. It should double in volume.
Sprinkle some flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick when handling. Gently fold the dough over several times, tucking the sides under to get rid of any air. It should return to about the same size that it was before.
Cover again and leave in the refrigerator for ½ hr until it’s firm enough to shape.
Sprinkle flour over a working surface and roll the dough into a “log” about the diameter of a rolling pin..
Cut the log in half, then each half in three, to make 6 equal pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball.
Flatten each ball slightly, then place one by one in a buttered round mold to form a crown.
Cover and let rise for 1½ hr at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). A convection oven is best.
Beat an egg, add a pinch of salt, beat again, then use a brush to coat the top of the brioche so it will turn golden.
Cook for 30-35 min.
Let stand for 5 min, then unmold.
Slip the fève into the brioche from the bottom so no one will see where it is.
- Optional: Ice with apricot preserves and decorate with pieces of candied fruit.