Gâteau des Rois Provençal

Sure, go ahead and buy one of those puffed-up cardboard glue-filled dyed-and-painted THINGS sold as king cakes. Hell, you’re just going to get drunk and (try to) get laid, and who eats the damn thing anyway, right? But if you were properly inspired by the carnaval spirit of Shrovetide, then you would find fuller satisfaction in serving a work of your own hands, a creation invested with your love and care, the mirror in a minor way of the sacrifice around which the season is arraigned.

Finding a recipe for a Provençal Twelfth Night couronne briochée (crown brioche) was surprisingly problematic, and here is where I thank my friends the Bucklers for their cogent translation. The recipe may seem daunting at first, but it’s nothing more than a simple light bread, sweet-“ish” and rich with a dense texture, and as with all basic breads the emphasis is on procedure rather than ingredients.

Let me encourage you to make a test version some time before you plan to serve the cake to ensure a more perfect presentation. Also, instead of a plastic baby or some such nonsense, make the crowning ‘prize’ a piece of dried fruit—I use an apricot—and for goodness sakes just use a simple glaze such as a marmalade or a syrup—fig preserves are wonderful—with candied fruit for a topping instead of glitter and spray paint. Let the good times roll!

2 cups of well-sifted flour
1 packet active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
Zest from 1/2 orange
1 egg
2/3 stick softened butter
1/4 cup warm orange flower water (optional) or water

Put the water and orange flower water into a bowl, add the yeast, stir until dissolved and set it to the side to bloom. In another bowl, whisk the egg with a fork. Pour the flour into a mixer bowl, making a well in the middle. Add the sugar, orange zest, the water/yeast mixture as well as the beaten egg into the well. Mix on low, adding the butter in pats and continue to mix for 5 minutes alternating between low and high speed. Scrape the dough—it should be very sticky—into a large oiled bowl, cover with a clean cloth and leave it to rise for 2 hours (no more than 3 or a crust will form). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, dust lightly with flour and turn the dough out on this surface. Then sprinkling with more flour as needed to make the dough manageable, re-form the ball on the baking sheet and push your thumbs in the middle of the ball, all the way down to the baking sheet to form a crown. Turn the dough to widen hole, then cover with a cloth and let rise for another hour and a half or thereabouts. (At this point, you can also refrigerate the covered dough overnight and bringing it to room temperature before baking in the morning.) The finished dough only takes 15-20 minutes to bake in a hot (400) oven until golden brown. Glaze, decorate and enjoy!