06 January 2012

6 January - Epiphany of Our Lord; King Cake

Weather: the weather today indicates the weather of June.

If the sun shines on the day of the Holy Kings, we will have two winters [which equals one long winter]

Today we celebrate the manifestation - epiphania - of the glory of Our Lord on three separate occasions: the adoration of the Wise Men from the East; His Baptism, when the Voice from heaven proclaimed Him the Son of God; and His first recorded miracle of changing water into wine at the marriage at Cana. (The Golden Legend adds The Feeding of the Five Thousand as the fourth manifestation.)  All were believed to have happened on the same day, albeit in different years.

While originally, Our Lord's Baptism was considered the most important Theophany, in time the Adoration of the Magi took precedence; this day is also known in many cultures as the "Day of the Kings".

By the Middle Ages, the unnamed [and unnumbered] Wise Men had become three: Caspar or Jaspar, King of Tarsus, the land of myrrh; Melchior, King of Arabia, where the land is ruddy with gold; and Balthasar, King of Saba, where frankincense flows from the trees.  Another telling said that Melchior was king of Nubia, short in stature, who gave the gift of gold; Balthazar was king of Chaldea, of medium height, who offered the frankincense; and Jasper was the king of Tarshish, a tall man, who laid the gift of myrrh before the Child.  The Hebrew version of their names was said to be Galgalath, Megalath, Tharath, and in Greek: Appelius, Amerius, Damascus.  In art they were often depicted representing the different ages of man: one as a beardless youth, one as a man in the prime of life, and one as an old man with a long flowing beard, and sometimes as representing three racial types: European, African, and Middle or Far Eastern.

Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Part of their legend is related thus:
“When Mary heard the tramping of their dromedaries’ feet, she was much alarmed, and took Jesus into her arms, fearing that He would be taken from her; and it was in this attitude the kings found the Mother and the Child.  They threw themselves on their knees with the utmost reverence, and adored Jesus as God and Saviour of the world.  Then they offered him rich gifts.  Caspar gave gold, to signify that the Babe was King; Melchior gave frankincense, to show that He was God; and Balthasar offered myrrh, as a reminder that He was man, and doomed to die.”

“In return, the Saviour bestowed upon them gifts of more matchless price.  For their gold He gave them charity and spiritual riches; for their incense, faith; and for their myrrh, truth and meekness.  And the Virgin, His mother, also bestowed on them a precious gift and memorial – namely, one of those linen bands in which she had wrapped the Saviour; for which they thanked her with great humility and laid it among their treasures.”

“When they had performed their devotions and made their offerings, the Three Kings, having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod, turned back again to their own dominions.”

The custom of today is to bless the rooms of your house with holy water and use blessed chalk to inscribe -  20 C + M + B 12  - above the front door.

Another custom for this day involved setting frankincense alight in a chafing-dish.  The entire household would breathe in its aromatic fumes, as protection against diseases in the coming year.  The head of the house would then carry the pan throughout the house as further protection against evil.

A young lady wishful to dream of her future husband should walk backward, throw a shoe over her left shoulder, and pray the Holy Kings to reveal him that night in her dreams.

In honor of the Kings, make a KING CAKE.  A bean or a baby figure can be hidden inside - the one who finds the bean is the king of the celebration.  This same cake can be made and eaten throughout the Carnival season - but not past Shrove Tuesday!

There are, as usual, several recipes online to try.  This is the same sweet bread that I use for Pan de Muerto:

Heat 1/4 cup of milk to boiling, stirring to prevent curdling; remove from heat.  Stir in 1/4 cup of butter (cut into small pieces), 1/4 cup of sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Set aside and keep warm at about 110 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix 1 package of active dry yeast with 1/4 cup of warm water until dissolved; let stand 5 minutes.  Slowly stir in warm milk mixture until well blended.

Separate 1 egg; save white for another use.  Add the yolk and 1 whole egg to the milk/yeast mixture, then add 3 cups of flour, one cup at a time, mixing well with each addition.  Turn out the dough onto a floured surface.  Knead dough until smooth.  Grease a large bowl. Place dough in the bowl, turn over to coat entire ball of dough with oil; cover with a dish towel, and let rise in a warm place until double, about 90 minutes. Grease a baking sheet.

Punch down dough, and turn out again onto a floured surface.  Knead until smooth.  Divide dough into thirds.  Roll each third into a rope.  Pinch one end of the three ropes together; braid them, form the braided dough into a circle and pinch the opposite ends together.  Place the circle on the greased baking sheet.  Insert an almond, pecan half, dried bean, or ceramic baby figure into the dough so that it can't be seen.   Cover loaf with a dishtowel and let rise for about 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350° F.   Bake for about 35 minutes.

Mix 1 cup of confectioner's sugar with 1 tablespoon of water (add another tablespoon of water if needed to make frosting thin).  Either glaze the cake with frosting, and sprinkle colored sugars in sections on the top (green, gold, and purple are traditional) or divide the frosting into 3 parts and tint each part with food coloring, then glaze the cake, with one color to a section.

Carnival begins today, although the time set aside for celebration varied from country to country and sometimes community to community.  The Venetian festival lasted from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, while Rome confined its mirth and madness to the eight days before Lent, and Paris to the three days before.

But more of that anon.  We feast, then we fast.