Friday, January 06, 2006

The art of tarts.

Today, January 6th …

Today is Twelfth Day, or Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, whichever you prefer. It is the end of the traditional Christmas season, celebrating the day when the three Wise Men paid their visit and gave their gifts to the infant Jesus, or the last party day before starting the real work of the year, whichever you prefer. It is the day to put the ham bone in the freezer ready for winter soup, take down the tree, and have some Twelfth Cake or King Cake.

Every country with a European heritage has its version of the Twelfth Cake. It may be a special sweet bread, or a fruit cake, or a flaky pastry confection, and the symbolic associations are at least as important as the gastronomic. One more slice than the number of guests should be cut, the extra slice being “for God”, and is to be given to the first poor person who comes to the house. For purely secular luck, a tradition which has its roots in ancient pagan fertility rites says that a small item – a bean, a coin, or a tiny doll – must be hidden inside the cake, and the finder is elected king or queen for the day. This was a dubious privilege, with the winner – depending on the particular local custom – being responsible for leading the fun (usually drinking), paying the bill, performing the rituals that rid the house of evil for the forthcoming year, or hosting the Candlemas celebrations on February 2nd.

The proud domestic pastry-makers of England had a variation of the homely jam tart which allowed them to show off their skills at church socials. It was the “Epiphany Tart”, and kudos was attached to the intricacy of the pastry lattice on top of the open tart, and the number of different coloured jams which it contained. A popular design was in the form of the Star of David, which in expert hands allowed for 13 different colours, and must have looked like an edible stained-glass window.

For your pastry, try this recipe, from Charles Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria.

Tart Paste
Spread a pound of flour on the table with a hollow in the centre; add half a pound of butter, three ounces of sugar, one egg, half an ounce of salt, and a gill of water; mix and work the paste into a smooth compact body.


On Monday:
Funny fish bits.

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