Thursday, January 6, 2011

drawing the kings to the Orient, or an Epiphany in Beijing

January sixth is a day that goes by many names.

It's the final day of Christmas (also known as the very last day on which retailers can possibly get away with playing obnoxious holiday music before unpleasant fates befall them.)

The British call it Twelfth Night (as in Shakespeare's play.)

It is most widely known as the Epiphany, a day celebrating the three wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for a new king.

And it marks my latest mad culinary endeavour.

It's no secret that I like obscure holidays, particularly those that come with culinary curiosities. No surprise, then, that I couldn't resist Epiphany, which has rich and storied culinary traditions that vary by country. This year, I opted for a classic, the French dessert known as galette des rois.

Galette des rois is a puff pastry tart with an almond filling. It hails from northern France, and according to tradition, it contains a fève, a bean, "to draw the kings" to the Epiphany. After the galette is cut, whoever finds the fève in their slice is crowned king or queen for the day. (The French pastry shops take this seriously – galettes are sold with paper crowns, and the fèves are porcelain trinkets, often quite elaborate.)

It's a charming tradition - if you're in France. In Beijing, it's a little less charming, and a little more mad.

A porcelain fève is out of the question unless you have helpful friends visiting you by way of France. (You'd best make do with a dried bean, or a whole almond.)

Good luck finding a paper crown. (Looking inside a British Christmas cracker might be your best bet; try the sale aisle of an imported goods store.)

Should you find the requisite items, there's still no guarantee that you'll be able to explain the holiday and the tradition to your bemused family or your befuddled co-workers. (No, not even with the combined help of multiple dictionaries, Google, and Chinese-language Wikipedia.)

And all that's before you even get to the baking.

There's puff pastry you'll have to make from scratch, because your chances of finding any sort of ready-made puff pastry, let alone all-butter ready-made puff pastry, are very close to nil. By the time you're standing in a freezing cold kitchen, bundled up in your heaviest jumper (and contemplating the merits of adding a parka) as you give your puff pastry a fourth turn, you might - just might - start to question your sanity.

You'll stop questioning your sanity when you come to the frangipane. That's when you'll know you've definitely lost it.

The terms frangipane and crème d'amandes are often used interchangably outside of a French-speaking context. Unfortunately, they don't refer to the same thing. Crème d'amandes is a paste of butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg and flour, and it's mixed with crème pâtissière - a custard of eggs, sugar, and milk, thickened with flour - to produce frangipane. Crème d'amandes is a little like marzipan in texture and flavor; frangipane is more like a dense, eggy almond custard.

The traditional filling for galette des rois is frangipane. Strictly speaking, a puff pastry tart with a filling of just crème d'amandes isn't a galette des rois, but a pithiviers feuilleté. But if you forget to buy the damn milk for the crème pâtissière, and don't realise your mistake until well after the shops have closed for the evening, you'll use crème d'amandes alone and call it galette des rois anyway.

That's fine. The insane are allowed to dispense with tradition. Besides, neither your bemused family nor your befuddled co-workers will know the difference anyway.

Galette des Rois

This dessert was originally eaten only on Epiphany, but its season has gradually been extended to span nearly the whole of January. If you're reading this on January seventh, you've still got time to make it in season.

(Inspired by the recipes here, here, here, and here. Makes one eight-inch galette – enough for eight to twelve servings, depending how thinly you slice it.)

First, the puff pastry. If you have a source for all-butter puff pastry, this is a same-day recipe, and you can scroll down to the paragraph about crème d'amandes. If you don't have a source for all-butter puff pastry, this is best done over the course of two days.

Puff pastry begins with a detrempe, a water-flour dough with a bit of butter in it. So: dump one-and-a-half cups (seven and a half ounces) flour in a mixing bowl. Add half a teaspoon of salt. Rub in half a stick (two ounces ) of chilled unsalted butter until you have a loose, crumbly mixture. Add a half-cup of cold water. Stir. Add additional water, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture forms a soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper. Dust it with flour. Take one-and-a-half sticks (six ounces) chilled unsalted butter, and cut them so that the pieces can be arranged in a rough square. Sprinkle with more flour. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper. Whale on the butter with a rolling pin until you have a rough square about three-sixteenths of an inch (four milimetres) thick. Put the butter in the fridge.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Remove the dough from the fridge and set it on the parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and cover with another sheet of parchment. Roll it out into a rough square large enough to fit the butter square diagonally, such that the corners of the butter square touch the mid-points of the dough square.

Get the butter out of the fridge. Place it on the dough diagonally, so that the corners of the butter touch the edges of the dough. Fold the dough over and pinch gently to seal, creating a dough envelope with butter inside. Wrap in plastic wrap, and put it back in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Now the rolling-and-folding process begins. Most cookbooks will tell you this is best done with a marble rolling pin on a marble board. Neither is essential, but it helps to get the room as cold as possible. (Don't do this near a warm oven; chances are you'll end up with a greasy mess.)

Lay out parchment, sprinkle with flour. Get out your pastry-butter envelope and set it on the counter. Cover with more parchment. Roll it out until you have a longish rectangle roughly three-sixteenths of an inch thick. (For photos of the process, look here.)

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter, and flip it over so that the seam is on the underside.

Roll it out again to three-sixteenths of an inch, and fold and flip again. Every fold-and-flip is called a turn. You've given the dough two turns, so gently press two fingertips into the dough. Wrap in plastic, and allow to chill for at least an hour, preferably two.

Give the dough two more turns. Mark the dough with four impressions. Wrap in plastic; chill for at least an hour, preferably two.

Give the dough two final turns. Mark the dough with six impressions. Wrap in plastic and stick in the fridge. Let it rest for at least three hours, preferably overnight, before you use it.

While the dough rests, make the crème d'amandes. Start by creaming together half a stick (two ounces) of softened unsalted butter with a quarter-cup of sugar. Work in half a cup of almond meal (a little less than two ounces). Add one egg; beat the mixture until it is smooth and well-blended.

Stir in two tablespoons of flour. The mixture should be a thick paste; if it seems runny, add a little more flour. Finally, stir in a few drops of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. (Optional extra: a half-teaspoon of dark rum. And a nip of rum for yourself.) Cover with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.

To assemble the galette, take the puff pastry from the fridge and divide it in half. Roll each half out on a floured surface until it's about one-eighth of an inch thick.

Use a sharp knife to cut an eight-inch circle from the first half (you can use a plate or a cake pan as a template). Cut a slightly larger round from the second half – about eight-and-a-half inches in diameter. (Any pastry scraps can be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked for a snack.)

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the eight-inch pastry circle on the baking sheet. Remove the crème d'amandes from the fridge.

Crack an egg into a small bowl and beat well. Brush the beaten egg on the outer half-inch of the circle. Avoid the very edge of the pastry circle – the egg will seal it, and it won't rise properly.

Spoon the crème d'amandes into the space inside the eggwash ring and spread it out with a spatula or the back of a spoon. If you're keeping with tradition, hide a whole almond or a dried bean (the fève) in the crème d'amandes, close to the edge.

Lay the second pastry circle atop the first. Smooth out any air pockets, and press around the eggwash ring to seal. (You can press the edges with a fork to decorate.)

Use a knife or a skewer to score a decorative pattern in the pastry. If you're unsure of your abilities, try a diamond-shaped grid or a series of straight lines radiating outwards from a center point; if you're feeling a little more confident, you can cut curved lines radiating outwards to form a sun- or flower- shape. Either way, you only want to score the pastry – don't cut all the way through.

Brush the galette with beaten egg. Cut four or five evenly-spaced slits – cut all the way through the pastry this time – for steam vents. Chill the galette in the fridge for an hour.

Time to bake. Preheat the oven to 375F. Pull the galette from the fridge and place it on a middle rack in the oven. Bake for thirty minutes, or until the pastry is a rich golden brown.

Transfer to a cooling rack. The galette can be served at room temperature, or slightly warm (I prefer it slightly warm.) If you placed a fève in the galette, warn your guests that it's there before they start eating. The person who gets the slice with the fève is royalty for the day.


Virgin In The Volcano said...

I hate that you and the galette are so far away.

adele said...

Virgin - Well, if you fancy visiting Beijing...

No, scratch that. I'd rather visit LA. You have better weather, and no Great Firewall.

Cakelaw said...

A gorgeous Galette des Rois - I would like to try a slice of that.

adele said...

Cakelaw - If you were in town, I'd be delighted to offer you a slice. :)

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Gorgeous! Isn't it true that the French have a way of making things more charming? And I love love love your love of slightly obscure holidays. Happy New Year!

adele said...

Plum - Slightly obscure holidays are fun! I'm thinking that I'll probably do a Twelfth Night dessert for January 6th next year.

Happy New Year!