Just when you think you can't eat another cake or drink another glass of champagne (well, ok, I can always drink champagne), the French find another reason to bring the workday to a halt and indulge.
The epiphany is a serious culinary event here, lasting not just one day - officially January 6th - but the whole month of January. Pâtisseries vie to outdo each other with their epiphany cakes, inside each of which lurks a small porcelain figure known as a fève because in the original version it was a humble dried bean. Finding the fève makes you king or queen for the day and is a highlight of any French childhood - I can still remember wearing the golden paper crown and choosing a king from among my classmates at Sam's age, when my family spent a year in Paris and changed the way I would look at food forever.
For many people, the fève - though inedible - is the best part of the epiphany cake, which most often consists of two layers of puff pastry with a frangipane filling. No matter how flaky the pastry or how rich the almond cream, I think there is something a little monotonous about the cake known as the galette des rois. So I was happy to discover that Provence has its own version of the epiphany cake, made with brioche and decorated with candied fruit and coarse sugar crystals.
A brioche des rois that feeds four to six people sells for around €10 in bakeries, and since I had some candied fruit hanging around after Christmas it made sense to attempt it myself. For reasons I'm still trying to understand, the first recipe I tried, from Andrée Maureau's Desserts et douceurs en Provence, nearly went horribly wrong when the dough stubbornly refused to rise even when left overnight. Determined not to let it go to waste, I dissolved another packet of yeast in a little warm water the next morning, making sure it bubbled, and incorporated it into the dough with a couple of scoops of flour. Left in a warm place, the dough finally cooperated and the resulting brioche would have looked at home in a bakery window.
In the meantime, feeling the first recipe was not to be trusted, I had started on a second brioche from the blog Eggs & Mouillettes. French blogger Fabienne is from Provence and this was her mother's recipe, so I was fairly confident that this one wouldn't flop. Indeed, this was a brioche better than anything I could have bought in a bakery thanks to its almond filling, an embellishment that bakers in Nice invariably leave out.
The brioche is very good in itself, but the gooey almond, sugar, candied fruit and egg mixture in the center takes it to another level. If you're one of the millions of people who finds candied fruit too cloying, it's entirely optional and can be replaced with dried fruit or simply forgotten. Fabienne uses angelica and raisins, but I substituted some not-too-sweet candied orange rind from producer Loulou, which had also gone into my Christmas pudding. I topped one brioche with candied fruit just for the fun of it, but the other looked almost as pretty sprinkled only with the coarse sugar. I had to visit three specialty shops before I found coarse sugar and ended up paying a ridiculous €10.50 for it at Le Pain Quotidien (so much for the money I saved making my own brioche), but the cake did look naked without it.
Sam helped with placing the fèves and there may have been method to his madness because, after instructing me where to cut the finished cake, he promptly became king for the day. His fève collection is growing by the minute.
By the way, I'm off to Rome tomorrow for a few days and will have internet access, so if you have any favorite places to tell me about I'd be extremely grateful!
Brioche des rois
Adapted from Eggs & Mouillettes
150 ml milk
1 packet dried yeast
400 g flour
75 g sugar
125 g butter
1 tbsp orange flower water
100 g sugar
50 g butter
150 g powdered almonds
50 g candied orange rind, finely diced
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp strained apricot jam
2 tbsp icing (confectioner's) sugar
1 tbsp water
Coarse sugar crystals
For the sponge, warm the milk and stir in the yeast, 50 g of the flour and sugar. Place in a warm spot, such as near a radiator, until the mixture bubbles and doubles in size, 1-2 hours.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and beat the eggs in a small bowl. Place the sponge mixture in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook or continue working by hand. On low speed if using the mixer, add the rest of the flour, butter, eggs and orange flower water. Mix for 5 mins on low speed or knead by hand for 10 mins, until smooth and silky. Cover with a plastic bag and set aside in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Work the dough a little by hand, then stretch it out to make a large rectangle (the dough should be easy to work with at this point). Fold it in three, give it a quarter turn and stretch it out again into a rectangle. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times, then let the dough rest, covered with a dish towel, for a few minutes while you make the filling.
For the filling, melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar, egg, ground almonds and candied fruit (if using).
Roll the dough out into a long, narrow strip. Spread the filling along the center of this strip, then fold the dough over the filling to cover it completely, pinching it well. Join the ends of the strip to make a doughnut shape (my strip wasn't quite long enough, so the hole filled up as the brioche cooked). Carefully transfer the brioche to a baking sheet and let it rise, covered, for about 35-45 mins.
Beat the egg for the egg wash with a pinch of salt and brush this all over the brioche. Bake the brioche at 200 C for 20-30 mins, being careful not to burn the base.
For the glaze, bring the ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan until slightly thickened. Brush the cooked brioche with the glaze and top with candied fruit and sugar.