How to make a traditional Epiphany king cake

No one can remember exactly how our group of American study-abroad students ended up sharing a special kind of cake in my dorm room on Epiphany some two decades ago. But on Jan. 6 — the day that marks the arrival of the wise men, or foreign kings, at the baby Jesus’ manger in the Christmas story — we sliced into a flaky galette des rois, the traditional dessert the French eat on that day.

I got the fève. That is, my slice contained the tiny baby Jesus figurine baked into the cake. I don’t actually remember that part, but my friend Karen does, and she says we have photographic evidence: a shot of me wearing the tissue paper crown. The person who finds the fève is crowned king or queen for the day — and is expected to bring the cake next year.

After returning stateside, I would take Kris, another participant in that dorm-room feast, for my lawfully wedded king. We visit Karen, now living in Tucson, Ariz., as often as we can, and in our Austin home today, we still seek tastes of France where we can find them. For several years now, that has meant a galette des rois on Epiphany.

Although no one quite remembers how we acquired our galette that winter’s night in France, we know we didn’t make it ourselves. There are two reasons for this: One, we didn’t have the equipment in that dormitory, namely an oven. Second, we were playing French. Typical French people don’t make their special desserts at home; they buy them in their pâtisseries. There’s one on nearly every block.

In Austin years later, Kris and I couldn’t find a proper galette des rois to purchase — though that’s changed. The name translates as “cake of the kings,” and when I had asked for that, bakery owners told me the king cake would not be available until Mardi Gras.

In fact, a proper French galette des rois bears little resemblance to a New Orleans-style king cake. The New Orleans classic with the green, gold and purple is a yeasted cake. By contrast, the French version is made from puff pastry, with no yeast, and typically contains an almond filling.

Making puff pastry isn’t complicated, but it takes time, precision and a cold kitchen. Many experienced chefs have never attempted it. Many home bakers purchase commercially made frozen puff pastry. Two brands are readily available: Pepperidge Farms makes one that mainline grocery stores like Randall’s and H-E-B stock, or for twice the price, you can purchase an all-butter version made by a company called Dufour at Central Market or Whole Foods.

We have used Dufour and also have made the pastry from scratch. Our cake made from homemade puff pastry was flakier and more flavorful than the version we made from store-bought puff pastry, perhaps owing to the organic butter we used. But the one made from commercial puff resulted in a perfectly acceptable cake.

I’m the cake baker in our family, except when it comes to this cake. Kris is always up for extreme culinary adventure, so he was drawn from the start to the idea of making his own puff pastry. Over the years, he has consulted sources ranging from to “La Cuisine Familiale et Pratique,” a French classic that’s older than I am. Martha Stewart and Paul Bocuse have weighed in, but recently Kris has leaned on Jacques Pépin, and specifically the wonderfully detailed instructions laid out in “New Complete Techniques.” I’m happy to let Kris wear the apron, but I’ve watched to see what he does.

He starts with flour, butter, salt and water. He creates two mixtures, one dough-like from the start, the other a stiff block because it’s mostly cold butter. He chills the first, which Pepin calls the détrempe, and rolls it into a square, then chills it again. Then he shapes the buttery block into a square of the same size and chills it, too. Next, he rolls the détrempe to double its size, then folds it like an envelope around the butter.

What ensues for the next hour or two is a series of repeated rolling and folding, with chilling periods interspersed.

The result of all this precise folding is layers — many, many layers of hair-thin glutinous dough separated by equally thin layers of butter. Martha Stewart says you end up with 1,458 layers, and I’m not one to question her.

When the pastry eventually goes into a hot oven, those layers separate, the butter expanding when it heats and the dough baking into crisp, golden leaves. Until it reaches the oven, though, heat is anathema. If that butter melts prematurely, it will become one with the dough, the discreet layers lost.

Before the oven, though, comes the cutting, the filling and the sealing. Two layers of puff pastry enclose a batter of almond paste, sugar, more butter and eggs, with the fève tucked inside.

In France, fèves are often tiny porcelain dolls. At our house, the fève takes the form of a large dried bean. Friends often join us for our annual Epiphany celebration. But no matter who gets the fève, Kris looks forward to the ritual of making this cake every year.

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