A couple of weeks ago at work, our pastry chef, Guillermo, brought up a large, round cake from the pastry kitchen downstairs.
Everyone quickly descended upon it. It was devoured within minutes of its initial appearance.
“Tell me if you find the bean!,” he said to the staff as they crowded around the cake.
Though I had never encountered a King’s Cake in person, I had seen them eaten on occasion in European films during my college days. I knew that the lucky fellow or fellowess that found the bean would be crowned “King/Queen for a Day.”
I wanted that bean.
I took a bite of the yeasty cake. I tasted cinnamon, I tasted orange water, but nothing that might chip my front tooth like a hard bean or a plastic baby, which are sometimes used. Then I took another bite…
There was no crunch, no cracking of enamel, just a hint of something with a little less give than the bready cake that surrounded it.
I found the bean. Though it was nearly 10 pm, I knew that I was going to be king for the next two hours. I wanted to make the most of it, issuing decrees to my fellow staff members. “We command you to run our drinks to table 41.” “We feel that the emptying out of ice buckets is beneath us.” How I longed to have a legitimate excuse to use the royal “we”.
When I told Guillermo that I had found the bean, I wondered aloud where my crown was. “Sorry,” he said, “no crowns.”
“So what do I get then?” I asked.
Our executive chef looked at me, laughed, and said, “You get to by Mexican coke and tamales for the entire kitchen staff.” I learned the hard way how hard life must be for other royals, what with all that responsibility of feeding the masses and what not.
Fortunately, I learned that there were two other beans planted in that cake, which not only tied in nicely with the story of the appearance of The Three Kings, or Magi (which is how this whole Epiphany business got started), but cut my portion of the gifting down to one third. Delightful. And it’s supposed to bring me good luck for the rest of the year.
According to some traditions, since I found the bean, it is now my turn to make a King’s cake. Some cultures only make them for the Feast of the Epiphany, others, like the notoriously celebratory denizens of New Orleans, see Epiphany as more or less the kick-off to a month of parties that lead up to Mardi Gras. I’m siding with New Orleans here, since that means I’m well within the King’s Cake zone.
When thinking about this cake, I realized something significant– January is rather king-heavy in its celebrations. At the beginning of the month, we’ve got the baby Jesus, who some call the King of Kings; right after that comes the birthday of Elvis, the King of rock and roll; and, finally, there is Martin Luther King, jr. Holiday. Three kings. Count ’em.
It was all too perfect to pass up.
Rather than make a straightforward, Jesus cake, I could celebrate all three kings (Sorry, Carole King was born in February) by adding three different kinds of beans.
Ideally, I would have liked one of those plastic babies to stand in for Jesus, a quaalude for Elvis, and a little peace sign for Dr. King. However, I had concerns about them melting/dissolving and causing those who ate of the cake all sorts of problems and I can’t afford another lawsuit this year, so I stuck to beans.
How to Play the Cake Game
I suggest you tell those who would consume this cake precisely which bean represents whom (It’s your choice. Mix it up a little. I’m sure Dr. King, for example, would get awfully tired of always having to be the black bean. There should be no grey areas and no trading allowed.
Once all three beans are found, each lucky finder will then be obligated to spend the rest of the day emulating the king the king he or she has found. For example, if one person finds the Jesus bean, she might take a stab at practicing forgiveness (especially to the baker of this cake, who is the person what got them into this situation in the first place). If another finds the Dr. King bean, he might perform an act in the name of civil rights. I do not recommend, however, that the finder of the Elvis bean start dating underage girls. Perhaps a song or a little swiveling of the hips would be more appropriate. Do what you want– you baked the cake, so you get to set the rules, king maker.
How’s that for absolute power?
Three Kings’ Cake
This is my own, made-up version of the Mexican King Cake, Rosca de Reyes, but done Sicilian style, because, well, I’m Sicilian. More correctly, I am slightly less that 1/4 Sicilian, but that’s the part of the family which dominated family holidays, so that’s what I’m going with. To my knowledge, no one in my family has ever bothered with such a dessert before. Not even the mass-attending, fish-on-Fridays older generations. Hell, I didn’t even know what 12th Night was until I was old enough to run for president.
One of the things I liked about the Rosca de Reyes that my friend Guillermo made was its subtlety, both in flavor and in decoration– all the other King Cakes I’ve tried have been either sickeningly sweet or frightfully/delightfully garish, like the ones that come out of New Orleans.
King cakes come in so many styles and flavors that there is no one correct way to go about it. Experiment a little, why don’t you? That’s what I did.
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
3 eggs, plus 1 egg for glazing, all room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup milk, scalded then cooled to lukewarm
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 ounce dry active yeast (1 packet)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
the zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon anise seed
1 tablespoon orange flower water
slivered almonds for garnish
dried figs, slivered, for garnish
Turbinado sugar for garnish. Turbinado– I remember a friend of mind telling me in a low, throaty voice, that it would be his drag name, but that is another story.
AND THREE BEANS, your choice.
1. Scald milk and let cool down to luke warm. Sprinkle yeast over the milk and let sit for about ten minutes to let it “bloom.” Melt butter and let cool to warm, too.
2. In the bowl of your electric mixer (it can, of course, be done by hand, too, but why bother if you can avoid it?), combine the butter and sugar using the paddle attachment that should have hopefully come with your machine. Add the three eggs and beat well– until light, but not too frothy. Add vanilla and almond extracts, orange zest, and orange blossom water. Replace paddle attachment with dough hook.
3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and anise seed. Gradually add these dry ingredients to the wet ones and knead until the dough forms a loose, sticky ball. Place dough in a large lightly oiled, clean bowl, cover it with a moistened (clean) cloth and let sit somewhere warm until it has doubled in size (about an hour and a half). I prefer the inside of my turned-off oven myself. And you?
4. Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. If the dough seems a little too sticky or loose to work with at this point, just add more flour. If you’re adding a lot more flour, add a little more sugar, too while you’re at it. The dough should be workable, but not dry.
5. Place some sort of heat-proof bowl or other such roundish item at the center of a parchment (or better, silpat) lined baking sheet. Brush or rub the bowl lightly with butter or oil to prevent sticking. Roll the dough with your hands to make a rather thickish rope and wrap it around the bowl, tucking one of the ends under the other. If there are strange little folds or creases, it doesn’t matter– they will work themselves out in the end. And don’t fret about using all of the dough. I did not– it won’t all quite fit into a baking sheet, so there is some to discard of find other, novel uses for.
6. Let the dough rise again, just as one of these three kings as promised to do. Fortunately, one only has to wait about 40 minutes to an hour for the bread, not 2,000 years like the Christians have been doing.
7. When sufficiently risen, lightly brush the surface of your dough ring with an egg wash (the remaining egg beaten with about a tablespoon of water). Decorate with dried figs, almonds, and Turbinado sugar. Tuck the three beans into the underside of the dough at various intervals.
8. Bake in a 375° oven until done. I know this sounds vague, but it depends entirely upon how large you decide to make your cake. This particular cake will take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. Give it a little check at around minute 35 or so. Essentially, when it smells done, it’s done.
9. When sufficiently cooled, inflict this cake upon your friends and loved ones, all the while preparing yourself for retribution.