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Mountain Folklore: The King Cake tradition

I’ll begin by wishing you a happy new year, and I hope your holiday season had some memorable and joyful moments.

Today the Twelve Days of Christmas conclude, Epiphany begins and there are many fascinating secular and religious traditions that blend together. One of the tastiest of these time-honored traditions is the baking of a “King Cake.” King Cake bakers and consumers can be found in several regions and cultures, and it is on Jan. 5 that the cakes make their annual return to the holiday table.

Some bakers hide a dried fava bean in their cake. Others hide a tiny clay or stone facsimile of the Christ Child within their cake. This part of the tradition goes back to times in merry-old England when wassailing partiers would bake a bean or coin into bread or other food item. Whoever got the hidden object in their food became the highly-prestigious Lord of Misrule for the evening, which gave them a status of being a sort of “king for a day.”

Among their duties on the 12th night of Christmas were presiding over the final feast, leading others in song and poetry reading, and selecting which games were to be played as the evening unfolded. The Lord of Misrule was also known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason. In France the title was Prince des Sots, or Prince of Fools.

This was the time of year when commoners, by tradition, would take the place of the noble class and run the day’s and night’s proceedings and debauches. On Jan. 6 everyone was expected to get back to work, and they would not have another break, (we’d call it a vacation), until the yuletide returned in December. This is why they partied with such gusto.

In our era bakers still hide beans and Christ Child objects in their King Bread. Nowadays finding the object in your cake is considered good luck for the coming year. Bakers in New Orleans create fantastic King Cakes with a tiny Jesus inside, topped with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green.

When I decided to write about King Cakes it became immediately apparent to me that the best way to share information about the tasty tradition would be to reach out to a baker friend. My go-to choice for such things rooted in European culture is my longtime friend, baking expert, musical colleague, history buff and practitioner of daily joie de vivre, Francine Black.

Francine lives and bakes in her home on Opera Mountain in Barto. The stories of her book of life are engaging, authentic and reflect her years growing up in France as a child. Her love of family, music, food and culture, often blend together to produce fabulous outcomes in private and community projects she contributes to.

I once had the pleasure, along with about 2,000 other people in the audience, of watching Maestro Sidney Rothstein, former conductor and music director of the Reading Symphony Orchestra, surrender his baton to Francine during an RSO concert at what is now the Santander Performing Arts Theater. During a recent fundraiser for the orchestra, Francine had bid for and won an opportunity called the “Golden Baton” in which she got to borrow the maestro’s baton to conduct the orchestra on a piece during a concert. Those few minutes have become moments etched into my memory. Francine was fluid and graceful as she kept perfect time and conducted the musicians through a flawless performance.

So it was Francine whom I reached out to about baking a King Cake. She immediately agreed and later followed by asking me if a French galette des roise, the type of cake traditionally made in France and Switzerland would be OK. I told her that would be perfect.

Francine got right to it and before long I received this third message from her: “Dave, I’ve enjoyed doing the research on this. There are three types of King Cakes that date back beyond a thousand years, prior to the Renaissance. French, Spanish and countries of the Ottoman Empire each have their own unique recipe. I’m going to make three cakes, representing the three cultures. The French is made with puff pastry filled with almond cream. The Spanish, (now mostly made in New Orleans), is a rich yeast cake filled with fruit, nuts and custard. The cake from the Balkans is savory and made with phyllo dough filled with feta cheese, eggs and yogurt. This is an interesting project and I love learning new things.”

A few hours later pictures of Francine’s King Cake creations began arriving to my computer’s inbox, with yet another message from Francine: “Here’s the first King’s Cake. This is the type found in Spain and New Orleans. It has a rich, brioche batter studded with dried sour cherries, covered in a rum-apricot glaze.”

The cake looked like an actual king’s crown and was impressive in its ornamentation. It’s the middle cake in the photo that goes with this story.  A short time later another picture and message arrived: “Dave, the French King’s Cake, known as la galette des rois, (King’s Cake), is a puff pastry filled with frangipane. The frangipane is extra special because the ground almonds are incorporated into a rum and lemon-scented custard.”

Later that evening I received the final photos with this message: “Dave, the final cake is called Banitsa in Bulgaria where it originated. The feta cake would make a nice lunch with a bowl of salad. The galette could be used for dessert, and the yeast cake would be nice for afternoon tea.”

And with that, Francine had created three King Cakes. They were all fantastic. Aside from being duly impressed by Francine’s eager leap into a matinee and soiree of baking stretching almost from sunup to sundown, I was left in a state of wonderment that she actually had everything in her pantry and larder on hand to create and bake the cakes, including a King Cake mold that she bought while in the Alsace region on the border of France and Germany. Clearly, I called on the right baker and friend.

I’d like to thank Francine Black for helping me to bring to life the King Cake tradition for this week’s column, and I hope she and you have a year ahead that is punctuated frequently by happiness, discovery and meaningful interactions.


Source: Berkshire mont

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