Treats of the Epiphany > Recipes I

Three Kings Day marks the end of the Christmas season and gives us one more chance to celebrate with delicious foods from diverse cultures.

Twelfth Night dinner, Feast of the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings or Three Kings Day, whatever you choose to call it, the celebration officially marks the end of the holidays.

These festivities, which cross many ethnic lines, recall the visit of the three wise men, or Magi, at Christ’s birth. For home cooks, it’s a time to revel in a culinary diversity with treasured dishes and traditions.

Three Kings Day is observed in Spanish-speaking countries as well as in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and England. Each country has its own tradition for observances, but most people celebrate with family, church and community gatherings.

Western Christians celebrate the Epiphany, when the three wise men visited baby Jesus, on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. In Spanish-speaking cultures, the holiday is called Three Kings Day, and it is also known as Twelfth Night.

On this evening, Puerto Rican children often leave grass under their beds for the kings’ camels. While the kids sleep, parents replace the grass with toys. The practice comes from the story about the wise men bringing treasures to the stable where Jesus was born.

In Europe, as far back as the 4th century, a King’s Day cake of some kind was part of the celebration. In 18th-century France, the cake of choice was a flaky pastry, gateau des Rois (cake of kings), filled with almond pastry cream. Today the most popular version, even in France, is a variation on brioche, a sweet dough embellished in whichever way the baker sees fit.

In Mexico, it is a time for giving presents to children and for having a merienda, or snack, of rosca de reyes, a sweet yeast bread made in the form of a ring. Hot chocolate is a favorite accompaniment.

Hidden in the dough is a token. The person who finds it has to give a party on Candelaria, or Candlemass, on February 2, a religious celebration of hope and light.

In Greek cookery, a sweetened, braided loaf is served during the Christmas season leading up to Epiphany, which is called “Christopsomo” or “Christ’s Bread”. But there is no token tucked inside the dough. A coin is inserted into the “Vasilopita” or “Saint Basil’s Cake” which is served on New Year’s Eve. Instead, the Christmas bread echoes northern Europe’s traditional fruit-studded cake.

Because Twelfth Night concludes the Christmas holidays, people traditionally have marked it with large gatherings and feasts to close the season. Today’s recipes will get you started on that menu.

And don’t take off those party shoes so quickly, Twelfth Night is also the official start of the Mardi Gras Season or the Carnival Season!