This might be my dentist’s favorite among the blogs I’ve written because today’s post is about a tiny porcelain object that is buried in a cake, designed to break a tooth. It’s called a fève, which means fava bean in French.
January 6th, 12 days after Christmas, is celebrated as the day the Three Kings, the Magi, the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem to present the Baby Jesus with three portentous gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A recent article in Biblical Archaeology explains:
Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi presented to Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew (2:11). These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.
And so it passed. Today we commemorate the day Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar made it to Bethlehem as a Holy Day, the Epiphany, in the liturgical calendar of the Church, and is celebrated by its very own cake.
According to tradition the King Cake makes its first appearance on Twelfth Night, or the eve of the Epiphany, and continues to be a party centerpiece through Mardi Gras, when the winter festivities screech to a halt and the weeks of Lenten penance begin. Americans are most familiar with the New Orleans-style King Cake, a sweet confection covered with icing and colored sprinkles.
Goofy American King Cake
In France, the cake has less bling and varies by region. In her book French Farmhouse Cooking, Susan Herrmann Loomis explains:
Patisserie and boulangerie shelves fill with galettes, which differ according to geography. In the north of France, the galette is a flat, shiny round of puff pastry usually filled with frangipane, or almond cream. In the south of France, the galette is made of brioche, usually flavored with lemon zest. In Brittany, galettes resemble Breton Cake studded with candied fruit. All contain a fève.
Sophisticated Galette des Rois
Tasteful Gateau des Rois
Placing a small object in a cake most likely is the result of a jumble of practices carried over from the Roman festival of Saturnalia: crowning the King of the Saturnalia, who was appointed by lots; coins and nuts used for the stakes in gambling; and the exchange of pottery or wax figurines to mark the last day of Saturnalia. (Today, In addition to marking the start of Mardi Gras, Epiphany also signals the end of the twelve days of Christmas.)
Over the years fèves have evolved from coins to beans to highly collectible porcelain figurines like those in the top photo. As you can see, they are little more than an inch high. I found these at a brocante, what we would call a flea market, in Bazouges last summer. One is placed in the gâteau or galette of your choice prior to baking. The person who finds the hidden fève in their piece of cake is dubbed “king” or “queen” of the feast.
If you decide to make your own King Cake you can order fèves from a French mail order firm, Faboland, or from a number of vendors on Etsy. Even if you don’t, this video from Cuisine Actuelle shows how a Galette des Rois filled with an apple mixture can be assembled very quickly by using packaged puff pastry. I might try it tonight. If I do I will post the recipe later. And if I find the fève, I’ll call my dentist.
Photos in the public domain from Wikipedia.