Celebrating Epiphany with a King Cake
I hope you all had a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
This past Sunday we celebrated the Epiphany. (The Feast of the Epiphany occurs on January 6 but can also be celebrated the following Sunday since it is a principal feast in the Episcopal Church—which you will already know if you heard last Sunday’s sermon.) As with Christmas and the Christmas season, the season of Epiphany follows the feast of the Epiphany from January 6 through the Tuesday before Lent, which is known interchangeably as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. During the season of Epiphany, we will hear gospel stories that manifest the divinity of Jesus: the manifestation of the infant Jesus to the three Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the transfiguration, when Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ library/glossary/epiphany-season) The root meaning of the word “Epiphany” is manifestation or appearance; an epiphany is usually a surprising appearance, sometimes a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential meaning of something.
One popular Epiphany tradition, and one of my favorites, is the king cake or kings cake—named for the story we hear on Epiphany of the coming of the three kings. Traditionally, a king cake was a French-type bread topped with sugar and with a bean inside. While this tradition originated in France and Spain, today there are lots of different types of king cakes and just as many different traditions associated with them.
In some places, king cakes are eaten on Epiphany; in some places they are not served until Mardi Gras; and in some cultures, they are associated with Christmas or Twelfth Night. Most are round, like a crown, and have a small trinket, coin, or fève hidden inside the cake. The word fève in French means “bean,” and, historically, a bean was baked or inserted in the cake. Today most bakeries use a small porcelain or plastic figurine—sometimes of a little baby Jesus, sometimes one of the three Kings, and sometimes another character. The fève often symbolizes luck and prosperity for the finder. In some traditions, whoever finds the fève in their slice of cake is king or queen for the day. In other traditions, that person has to buy the cake for the next party.
Here is a picture of me from Epiphany several years ago during a study abroad in Paris as “queen” after finding the fève. I am pictured with M. Mossu who played the “king” as he was the only man in my Parisian host family.
Americans may be most familiar with the traditions popularized as part of New Orleans’ Carnival, which takes place from Epiphany through Mardi Gras. New Orleans style king cakes are usually a cinnamon-filled bready cake topped with purple, green, and gold sugar (the official colors of Mardi Gras). These will be served from January 6 through Mardi Gras.
A New Orleans’s style King cake
In France, there are a few different types of king cakes, mostly eaten on the feast of Epiphany. Most similar to the New Orleans-style cake is the gâteau des rois, eaten in southern France and parts of Spain, which is a ring-shaped brioche-like cake filled with candied fruits. A galette des rois, eaten most commonly in northern France, Quebec, and Belgium (and my personal favorite), is a round cake made of layers of puff pastry and frangipane. In the west of France, a similar layered cake is made with a more butter cookie-like pastry.
A French-style galette des rois
A bolo rei is the traditional Portuguese version of a king cake and, like a gâteau des rois, is a ring-shaped yeast cake made with raisins, nuts, and candied fruits. In Spain, this cake is called a roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes, which means kings' ring. In Catalonia, it is called a tortell and is usually stuffed with marzipan or whipped cream in addition to the candied fruit.
A Spanish-style roscón de reyes
In Bulgaria, a banitsa, which is a cake layered with filo pastry and cheese, is served on Epiphany, New Year's Eve, or the Feast of St. Basil (January 1). Instead of a coin or charm, some Bulgarians write happy wishes on small pieces of paper, which, wrapped in foil, are then inserted in the cake. The banitsa is usually served for breakfast, although there are also sweeter variations of the cake. Greek traditions also celebrate the feast of St. Basil with a vasilopita, or Basil-pie, containing a lucky coin or trinket.
A Bulgarian-style banitsa
Here are a few king cake recipes if you’re inspired to bake your own.
For the experienced baker:
Here is a New Orleans King Cake recipe: https://makereadythefeastblog.com/2017/01/06/for-your-epiphany-feast-king-cake/
Or for a sweeter New Orleans King Cake, try this one: https://www.browneyedbaker.com/traditional-mardi-gras-king-cake/
And here is a recipe for the French-style galette des rois: https://www.davidlebovitz.com/galette-des-rois-kings-cake-recipe/
For a less-sweet and more bread-like cake, try this recipe for a Spanish-style rosca de reyes: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/three-kings-cake-rosca-de-reyes-or-roscand242n-de-reyes-recipe
And for the non-baker, here is a recipe whose only ingredients are pre-made cinnamon rolls, icing, and colored sugar: https://southernbite.com/quick-and-easy-mardi-gras-king-cake/
There are countless traditions associated with Epiphany around the world. And many of them involve some type of cake with a trinket, coin, or another type of surprise hidden inside. There is a sweetness to the Epiphany season, but the surprise inside is perhaps the best image of Epiphany. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of God being made manifest in a human baby, born to a family so poor he was born in a stable, but first announced to lowly shepherds by angels on high proclaiming good news to all. Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of wise men coming from the East, following a star from beyond the Jewish homeland, to honor a Jewish child and give gifts fit for a king. All four Gospels continue the story of the surprising ways that Jesus manifested (or made known) God and the already-in-breaking rule of God as king on earth.
Grace and peace,
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A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.