After Advent concludes, we are ready to begin the next liturgical season. We all know the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It is the Christmas carol that just keeps going (and going and going and going….). But beyond the catchy tune, it is one of the many Christmas songs that pays tribute to the fact that this winter holiday is not just a one day event but actually a 12 day celebration. But after Christmas ends on 5 January, there is still more celebration to be had: The Feast of Epiphany!
Epiphany, celebrated annually on 6 January, is the day we celebrate the three magi arriving to greet the Christ child, bringing with them their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The wisemen, also called magi or kings, are described in The Gospel of Matthew as scholars travelling “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. The Bible tells us that they followed the star to find Jesus with his mother, but does not give names to the three travelers from the East. Later texts identify the magi by the names Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, though account vary as to exactly which is which. We hear of their encounter with King Herod and their discretion after beholding the messiah, choosing to return home by a different route rather than reporting back to the jealous King Herod.
At St. Andrew’s, the Sunday when we celebrate Epiphany at church is one of the “not to be missed” church services because of the procession of the giant puppets. They tower above the congregation as they process down the aisle to the singing of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” an advent hymn written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr., then an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Although we are all familiar with the lyrics of the first verse of the hymn, it is worth listening to the middle three verses, each of which is assigned to the kings as a solo, explaining the significance of the gifts they bring to the Christ child: gold, a gift befitting a king on earth; frankincense, a perfumed incense and symbol of a Jesus’s divinity; and myrrh, which is an embalming oil, foreshadowing Jesus’s death. All three of these gifts brought by the wise men are valuable offerings befitting of a king, but the spiritual representation of each gift speaks to the larger story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At home, there are several ways in which we can celebrate Epiphany. Traditionally, the Twelfth Night, the Eve of Epiphany, the night of 5 January, is the conclusion of Christmas, when it is finally time to put away the tree and all of the Christmas decorations. If your family has a crèche scene, a set of figures representing the stable with the holy family, shepherd and perhaps an assortment of villagers, you might also have the habit of keeping the magi separate from the central figures until epiphany (just like when we wait to put the baby Jesus into the manger until Christmas Day). Often, the three wisemen might start across the room and slowly be moved closer to the stable each of the 12 days.
Another way in which Epiphany is celebrated is with a Galette des Rois. Much like the American king cake or the Spanish roscón de reyes bread, this dessert often includes a small prize (called a fève) hidden inside the filling. Sometimes it might be a little porcelain figurine or a dried fava bean or a whole almond. Whatever the fève might be, whoever finds it in the cake gets to wear the crown. I call this the best holiday game ever: you play by eating cake, and even if you don’t win, everyone still gets cake.
Galette des Rois
The galette des rois is surprisingly easy to make at home. It is composed of two circles of puff pastry sandwiching a frangipani filling, and baked with a trinket, called a fève, into it. If your slice has the fève, you get the crown and the right to be king or queen for the day. The pastry circles can be cut, covered and refrigerated ahead of time as can the almond filling (it will keep for up to 3 days). And the whole construction can be made early in the day and baked when you’re ready for it. Tuck a bean or whole almond into the filling — warn your guests! — and, if there are children in the house, put them to work crafting a crown.
Here is a recipe taken from the New York Times Cooking section, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to bake one for yourself, you can support a local business and order one from André’s Confiserie Suisse (it even comes with a metallic paper crown!).
Recipe for Galette des Rois:
FOR THE FILLING:
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup (85 grams) confectioners’ sugar
¾ cup (85 grams) almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon rum (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 9½-inch-diameter circles puff-pastry dough (from a 14- to 17-ounce package; 396-482 grams), cold
1 whole almond or dried bean, for the charm
TO MAKE THE FILLING:
1. Working with a mixer or by hand, beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and light. Beat in the almond flour and the salt. Mix in 1 whole egg, then the white from the second egg (reserve the yolk). Mix in the rum, if using, and the extract. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
2. Mix the yolk with 1 teaspoon cold water; cover, and refrigerate until needed.
1. Place one circle of dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border bare. Press the charm into the filling. Moisten the border with cold water, position the second circle of dough over the filling and press around the border with your fingertips to seal well. Using the back of a table knife, scallop the edges by pushing into the dough (about ¼- to ½-inch deep) every ½ inch or so. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
2. Heat the oven to 425°F. Brush a thin layer of the reserved yolk glaze over the top of the galette, avoiding the border (if glaze drips down the rim, the galette won’t rise). With the point of a paring knife, etch a design into the top of the galette, taking care not to pierce the dough. Cut 6 small slits in the top as steam vents.
3. Turn the heat down to 400°F, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the galette is puffed and deeply golden. Check after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if it’s browning too much or too fast. Transfer to a rack, and cool for at least 15 minutes (the galette may deflate — that’s puff pastry for you). Serve warm or at room temperature.