The Feast of the Three Kings is celebrated in cultures from New Orleans to Europe. You may have heard of it as Epiphany or Twelfth Night (“If music be the food of love, play on…” was written for the occasion). It takes place January 6, twelve days after Christmas, and celebrates the day the three kings arrived to visit Jesus.
Traditionally, cake is a mainstay. The recipes vary (from Twelfth Night cake in Britain and King Cake in the American South) but they generally share these characteristics- round for the circuitous route the kings took to shake off King Herod, and inside some lucky eater will find a token symbolizing the Christ child. Whoever finds the bean, tiny plastic baby, coin or other little treasure gets a prize or to be queen or king for the day. (Some cultures add that the queen or king provides the cake for the following year.) In honor of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Italian heritage, the childhood memories of which were his inspiration for Amahl and the Night Visitors, we made a traditional Epiphany Italian Befana cake last night, with a hidden kidney bean. We wish we could give you a piece, but the recipe’s below.
1 + 1/4 cups raisins
1/2 cup diced candied lemon peel
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup brandy
1 + 1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast*
1 + 4 cups flour, plus extra for flouring work surface
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
8 tablespoons (1 standard stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk (separate; keep in fridge until end)
1/2 cup warm milk (30 sec in microwave)
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1 large kidney bean or other token
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
Nonstick cooking spray
Nonstick 10” round, 3” deep cake pan
2 large bowls
1 tea towel
*only 2 ¼ in the average yeast packet- will need more than 1
Candied peel can be difficult to find. We shopped for ours at Economy Candy in NYC. If you don’t have a nonstick pan, just butter the pan you have.
Preheat over to 350 degrees F. Put the raisins in a bowl, cover with 1 cup warm water to plump and set aside. In another bowl, combine the candied lemon and orange peels and brandy and set aside.
In another bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water. Add 1 cup of flour and mix until a sponge dough is formed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the sponge dough rise in a warm place (like on top of the stove) for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine 4 cups of flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest. Add the butter, 2 eggs, and milk. We prefer to mix with a wooden spoon. When the sponge dough is ready, add that and mix until well combined. It will be sticky at first, but gets easier to handle. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few minutes. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray, place the dough in and turn it once to coat both sides. Cover with the tea towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
While you wait, drain the water from the raisins, and, saving the brandy, drain the brandy from the candied lemon and orange. Pat the fruit dry with some paper towels.
When the dough is ready, punch it down in the bowl, then turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Pat and pull it out into a large rectangle. Take the raisins, candied lemon and orange peels, almonds and kidney bean, and sprinkle it evenly over the top. Begin the process of distributing these through the dough: roll this into a log, then form into a ball. You’ll be more easily able to knead now and work the fruit and nuts throughout. When satisfied, place the dough into your nonstick cake pan and cover with a towel. Leave it to rise in the warm place for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
When the dough is ready, add the egg yolk to the reserved brandy. Brush the top of the cake with the mixture and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Bake 45 minutes until golden brown. Wait for cake to cool before cutting (10-15 minutes).