Dear Frenchly Readers,
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. If it weren’t for the all the buzz over on French Morning about Epiphany Cakes and readers writing in who can’t find any pre-made puff pastry in their local supermarkets, I might not have spent much time thinking about the significance, and etymology, too, of the word, “epiphany.” I might have been mired in the replays of the less-than-hopeful 2021 January 6th events.
I confess, I am a lackluster Christian. I love the stories of the Bible and believe in the lessons that I can remember; I can murmur along to the Lord’s prayer when in a group of fellow murmurers, but I am just as partial to pagan or secular traditions.
But there’s something about the Kings’ Cake, made for the Epiphany in many parts of the world, and in each country’s own peculiar way, that has piqued my interest this year. In France, it’s made from two pieces of puff pastry which envelop an almond cream filling (often spiked with rum, Grand Marnier or Cognac) and there’s always a little trinket inside (awesome DIY video, here).
Sometimes the trinket is ceramic (and many bakeries in France make a big deal out of their new trinkets each year; there are collectors who collect and sell them, too), sometimes it’s plastic (gross), and sometimes it’s simply a little bean or coin. Whoever gets the little trinket or bean in their slice of cake gets to be king for a day, and wear the crown. Ok, the only place in France that has a cake with no trinket and no crown is the Elysée Palace, because, given that France is a République, no sitting President can put a crown on his or her head (or…off with their head!)
So, it’s the trinket that leads us back to the origins of Epiphany.
The Epiphany marks the celebration of the journey the Three Wise Men (or, they are also known as the Three Kings, or the Magi—a word that has its root in old Persian) made to honor the baby Jesus, led by the star of Bethlehem. They came, as you likely know, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is where the story gets interesting: The Wise Men saw the star on Christmas Day, but it took them a while, by camel, to get to the baby to honor him. Some people think it took them about 12 days, hence the January 6th date, and the idea of Twelfth Night being twelve nights after Christmas. But others say it took more like 40 days, or even two years. In any case, it took them a while to find a swaddled baby in some random barn named Jesus. It was cold, their camels moved slowly, there were bad guys around.
The word, “epiphany” comes from the Old French word, “epiphanie,” which is derived from Late Latin “epiphania,” which, in turn, comes from the Late Greek word, epiphaneia, which means, essentially, that God appeared at some particular place, or was “revealed.” In other words, January 6th is when Jesus was (maybe) revealed to the world. This is why when we say we’ve had “an epiphany,” it means something has just occurred, or been revealed– a light has appeared in the proverbial darkness of our cluttered minds. The Epiphany is a holiday that is meant to cultivate hope that there is light somewhere, anywhere, or just that we may have more epiphanies in 2023.
January 6th is usually also Twelfth Night, which is when our Christmas decorations should come down, according to tradition (ours come down on the 31st or 1st, as my husband’s birthday is on the 2nd and we like to be done with Christmas by then). Leaving them up any longer isn’t just lazy or tacky, apparently, but, in the folklore, is said to be very bad luck. Some people exchange gifts on the Epiphany, and some people jump in freezing cold water naked with crowns on—those people are Czech. (Don’t ask me to explain. I live in Maine and am tempted every winter…but don’t.)*
In France, there don’t seem to be many mad naked dashes into cold rivers and lakes. Instead, the Galette des Rois is the thing! And a French Kings’ Cake is as much a celebration of the Epiphany as it is a fun party game (secular country, remember.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but right about now I am ready to eat tofu, quinoa and broccoli for at least ten days or ten years. But in my house, our holidays don’t officially end until January 8th. My older son also has a birthday the first week of January. So, I must temper my desires to embrace the ascetic life I am craving by December 29th for just a little longer, just a little longer….Which brings me back to the Epiphany Cake.
In France, you might have to start your broccoli diet in February because it’s very common to eat Epiphany cake on then 6th, then again when visiting your grandmother in a day or two, then again with some friends next week, and once more at your work party on Wednesday, all the while hoping to avoid, perhaps, wearing the crown. Or maybe you want to wear it. You might have do this over and over the entire month of January. I feel empathy.
Tonight, I am hosting 12 teenagers for my older son’s 14th birthday. Dan has made an oven full of meringues; I made peanut butter cookies; we are making lasagna and popcorn and filling the table with all manner of snacks because teenagers, at least the ones I know, eat a ton. Added to the mix, if my day goes as planned, will be a Kings’ Cake. You all know how much I love baking cakes. I just couldn’t resist this year. I will bake in a little ceramic squirrel that’s been traveling through my life, Wise Men style, for over thirty (is this possible?) years. Whoever gets it will wear the crown. It won’t be me; as all I want for Epiphany is the epiphany of how great a cold glass of seltzer with lime truly is.
À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:
Speaking of epiphanies, I am publishing an essay today by our writer Keith Van Sickle, about the epiphany he and his wife had for how to live half the year in Provence without ever buying a house….it’s a funny, heartwarming story.
If you, too, get the Kings’ Cake itch, don’t worry, you’ve got all of January (or maybe even two years) to make one—Epiphany can be celebrated as long as you want, depending on how much you read into all this lore. Over on French Morning we’ve got lots of bakeries featured for where to buy a Kings’ Cake in NYC, LA, SF, and lots of other places, too. Or, if you want to make your own, we published French Morning’s video this week of chef Dominique Ansel showing us, step by step, how to make a Kings’ Cake in about ten minutes, flat. Dorie Greenspan has this recipe in the Times, too. (Neither has the gall to suggest you make your own puff pastry this soon after the holidays.)
This weekend, one of my favorite shows on PBS comes back with Season 3: All Creatures Great and Small starring Samuel West (you have never forgotten him as Leonard Bast in the perfect Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End), the wonderful Calum Woodhouse and the totally darling Nicholas Ralph. It’s based on the writings by the English country vet, James Herriot, and his life in a small village tending to the pets and livestock of quirky English country folk. I love it.
Be well, eat cake, wear crowns, and notice that every day there’s a little more light, and maybe hope, too.
*The photo above was taken in Kyiv, Ukraine in January of 2021. I found this beyond touching and I hope the people in the photo are safe. The information with it is as follows: “Kyiv Ukraine – January 19, 2021 – Celebration of Epiphany in Kyiv. Orthodox believers look at the woman coming out of the icy water of the Dnipro River. The air temperature is 13 degrees below zerow, [sic].”
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