Still in the holiday spirit? Why not celebrate Epiphany with a spin on a fruity traditional Spanish cake?
I am constantly on the look-out for celebrations - personal, public, local or borrowed from other cultures - if only as an excuse to bake a cake. Epiphany, the celebration of the coming of the magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, is not exactly on my calendar, but it will do. Today both France and Spain celebrate the event with a special piece of baking. I see every reason to join in.
The galette des rois, baked in France, Switzerland and Belgium, is a layer of frangipane trapped inside puff pastry and is good when it is fresh from the oven, but the cake that caught my eye this year was the Spanish roscón (or rosca) de reyes, that is also eaten in Cyprus, Greece and Latin America - a glittering confection of an enriched bread dough with icing or glacé fruits, it is not a something to set aside for a wet winter's afternoon. Each should contain a tiny gift, such as a bean or a plastic Jesus, but I drew the line at that. I did, however, whip up a spiced cream to go with it.
The method, or at least my version of the traditional, was unorthodox and a little unsettling. The yeasted dough is beaten into a cream of butter, sugar and eggs using the flat paddle attachment of a food mixer. It is something you might normally do by hand, but this method works - though you have to forgo the messy, up-to-your-elbows fun of doing it on a work surface. Take your pick.
Some form of decoration is essential. A trickle of white icing is simplest, slipping in shiny rivulets down the sides of the cake, but a bejewelled effect is more in keeping with the occasion. To hammer home the idea of the round bun as a crown, a setting of sweetmeats is both appropriate and a necessary partner to the plain dough.
Whole crystallised fruits, figs, clementines, plums and apricots, cut in half or sliced as you wish, will give a jewelled look to your cake, albeit at a price - maybe there are some left from Christmas. If not, slices of preserved orange and the large yellow citron will work, too. Angelica, that like-it or loathe-it candied herb, is another possibility. Glacé cherries are a bit of a last resort, if only on the grounds of good taste. The heavily sugared fruits, rather than burn as you might expect, lend a subtle fragrance to the plain cake as it bakes.
I refer to this as a plain cake, though the texture is rather similar to a brioche, but more open. There is a richness, too, from the sugar and the eggs. It is rather wonderful for breakfast.
As a final act of heresy, I served my roscón with a spiced cream. Seeds of cardamom and vanilla were used to flavour golden caster sugar and scented not only the cream but the cake, too. And I mixed the softly whipped double cream with an almost equal amount of mascarpone to give a supremely luxurious accompaniment. A celebration in any language.
A cake for Epiphany
A large ring cake. You will need a large baking sheet lined with kitchen parchment. Serves 8-10.
clementine or small orange 1
plain flour 600g
dried yeast 2 tsp
beaten egg mixed with a little milk 1
whole crystallised fruits about 6
For the cream:
whipped cream 200ml
Put the water and milk into a saucepan. Grate the clementine and lemon finely, stir into the milk and water, then bring almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse until warm rather than hot. (You should be able to hold your finger in it for several seconds.)
In a food mixer, fitted with the flat paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until soft, pale and light. Slowly and firmly beat in the eggs.
In a separate large bowl, tip the dried yeast and a generous pinch of salt into the flour and mix well, then introduce the warm milk mixture, beating the liquid into the flour with a wooden spoon or your hands.
With the mixer at a slow speed, introduce the yeasted flour mixture to the creamed butter, sugar and egg. (At this point the dough will seem a little unusual in its consistency, but bear with me.) Remove the dough from the machine, put a cloth or a piece of kitchen film over the top, then leave in a warm place for between an hour and an hour and half to rise.
When the dough is light and well risen - it should be almost twice its original size - tip it out on to a deep floured board and work it into a thick sausage shape and then into a ring. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and brush with a little beaten egg and milk.
Cut the fruit into large pieces, then push them down into the surface of the dough. Leave for 15 minutes in a warm place to regain its shape, then bake for 45 to 50 minutes until light brown. Leave on its tray to cool briefly before transferring carefully to a large serving dish or bread board.
Cut into slices and serve with cardamom and vanilla cream below.
Cardamom and vanilla cream
cardamom pods 15
vanilla pod 1
sugar 2 tbsp
softly whipped cream 200g
Break open the cardamom pods and pick out the black seeds inside, then crush them to a fine powder using a pestle and mortar. Split the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out the black seeds within, add them to the cardamom and stir in the sugar. Set aside in a jar until you are ready to serve the cake.
Pour the cream into a bowl and whip until thick, stopping before it stands in peaks. It should be soft enough to just fall off the spoon. Stir it into the mascarpone, taking great care not to over mix.
Transfer the cream to a serving bowl, scatter over some of the spiced cream, then scatter the remainder over the cake, and serve.
Email Nigel at email@example.com
Ring the changes: Nigel's take on roscón de reyes, a cake for Epiphany. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer