Monday, January 5, 2009
After all the glitz and sparkle of Christmas and New Year's Eve fades, I have one more night of celebration with my family and a few close friends every year on the night of January 5. Epiphany is a quiet holiday which marks the coming of the Wise Men to see the Christ child and is also the end of the Christmas season.
On this night, my family takes the ornaments off the tree and observes a sweet and simple ritual I'd like to share with you -- the baking and the eating of a King Cake. Into the cake is baked a small porcelain trinket, or feve. Whoever finds the feve in her or his slice gets to wear a paper crown and be queen or king for a day! Although it's traditional for the feve to be shaped like a bean or the baby Jesus, Castle in the Air has a collection of hundreds that I sourced in France that I can choose from each year. We have feves featuring characters from Jules Verne novels, psychedelic mushrooms, postcards of Paris, Carnivale maskes (King Cakes are also popular at Mardi Gras), fairies, and so forth.
No matter who is crowned, we all enjoy a peaceful night of singing Christmas carols, looking at the bare tree, and drinking cider by the fire.
For my cake, I like to use a wonderful recipe for almond torte from the book Chez Panisse Desserts (quite my favorite desserts book!), by Lindsey Shere, with a pastry crust from Martha Stewart. I have combined the two recipes to make a cake that reminds me of the rich flaky cakes one can buy in Paris during the month of January.
(Makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9- to 10-inch pies)
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
¼ to ½ cup ice water
In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.
With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.
1¼ cups sugar
⅞ cup (about 8 oz.) soft almond paste
1¼ cups softened unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
Beat the sugar with the almond paste until the almond paste is in fine pieces. Or, better, pulverize it in a food processor. Beat in the butter and the vanilla, then cream the mixture until it is light and fluffy. Beat in the whole eggs, one at a time — the eggs should be at room temperature — beating well after each addition so the eggs are thoroughly mixed in. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt, and beat in just until thoroughly blended.
To make as a simple torte: Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan and turn the batter into it, smoothing the top evenly. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 1 to 1¼ hours or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the center feels springy when you push it gently.
To make as a King Cake: Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Roll out one of the pastry disks until it is large enough to line the pan, covering the bottom and the sides. Turn the batter into the pastry-lined pan, and smooth the top evenly. Hide the feve in the batter. Roll out the second pastry disk and use it to cover the top of the cake. Pinch along the edge where the two crusts meet to make an attractive, sealed join. With a sharp knife, cut a star of Bethlehem design into the top crust. Make the cuts large and open so that the cake has space to rise and vent. Bake for 10 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about an hour until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. The crust should be a buttery golden yellow and the cake soft. Cool and wrap in a paper crown. Serve with whip cream.