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A Royal Treat: King's Cake Comes With A Surprise

January, every pastry shop in Paris devotes part of its window to a simple puff pastry tart. Rows of tiny trinkets stand nearby: a set of shoes or fancy hats or even cartoon characters. Buyers seem as interested in the trinkets as in the tart. As a final touch to the scenario, there's a cardboard crown.

Raymond Ost, co-owner and chef of Sandrine's on Holyoke Street in Cambridge, explains this longtime tradition. ``It's called `galette des rois' -- kings' tart -- and we have it at Epiphany, the holiday that celebrates the visit of the three kings to the baby Jesus.'' The tart has an almond filling and tastes delicious, but most important is the serving ritual. ``Inside we bury a little `feve.' The word means `bean,' because a bean used to be used. Then it was a baby Jesus and today it's any little figure,'' Ost says, displaying a handful of tiny Victorian ladies and gentlemen that will go inside his galettes.

``The galette is brought to the table with the crown on top,'' he continues. ``The one who gets the trinket becomes the king or queen and wears the crown. To find that person, a kid, usually the youngest, hides under the table. As the tart is cut, the child says who shall have each piece.''

In Spain, where the three kings replace Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts to children, Epiphany is the most joyous time of the year, and the must-have treat is ``roscon des reyes.'' The name means ``big doughnut of the kings,'' since the large cake, flavored with orange-flower water and decorated with sugar and fruit, is shaped like a doughnut.

In this country, the tradition thrives in New Orleans, where King cake, a cinnamon-flavored oval braid, appears around Jan. 6 and plays a starring role at parties during Mardi Gras. The person who gets the favor, once a bean or pecan and now the figure of a baby, has to provide the King cake for the next party. Below are some recipes:

  • Galette Des Rois
  • Roscon Des Reyes
  • New Orleans King Cake

    By Claire Hopley, Globe Correspondent

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