The King Cakes of Southern Europe
Along with Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, the king cake is another festive highlight in France, Spain and Portugal.
The flavour of almond cream or the buttery goodness of brioche tastes of childhood for many people in Southern Europe, some of whom still have the charms and figurines that won them the coveted crown on Epiphany. This holiday on January 6 each year is yet another occasion for bringing families together over the festive period.
The ritual has deep roots, yet most of us are unaware of its origin. The king cake tradition dates back to antiquity, as the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia around the same time of the year. At the end of the feast, the youngest guest would distribute slices of the cake, one of which contained the bean that designated the day’s king or queen.
This tradition took on religious significance when early Christians co-opted it to refer to the Magi who visited the Christ Child. Each region that celebrates Epiphany, including those in southern Europe, has its own local variant.
France: galette des rois in the north, gâteau des rois in the south
While most French people love the puff-pastry galette filled with frangipane, certain areas of the country have their own versions. The regions where the galette is popular have their own particularities, like the Alsatian dreikenigskueche – a delicious cream-filled brioche cake. From Provence to Aquitaine, the inhabitants of southern France traditionally celebrate Epiphany with a king cake shaped like a crown – a brioche scented with orange blossom water and garnished with candied fruit. The exception is Bordeaux, whose residents prefer the couronne bordelaise, a generous bread ring made for sharing.
The traditional Spanish roscón de Reyes
If you’re ever in Madrid on a January weekend or are spending the holiday in sunny Sotogrande, you’ll have the chance to discover the traditional local roscón de Reyes cake. The original recipe is very close to the brioche popular in southern France, but today there are gourmet versions in Spain with the addition of pastry cream, whipped cream, chocolate or other sweets inside the cake.
The bolo-rei, Portugal’s king of the holidays
Called bolo-rei (king cake), bolo de reis (kings cake) or bolo de Natal (Christmas cake), this dessert is a must-have during year-end festivities in Portugal. The recipe was actually brought over from southern France during the 19th century, but has since diverged from the gâteau des rois found in French bakeries: the Portuguese version has more eggs and its dough is enriched with wine or liqueur. Note: for safety reasons, Portuguese law now forbids small objects from being hidden in the cake. However, don’t let that stop you from enjoying the bolo-rei – or from crowning the king or queen of your choice!
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