On the sixth of January, Switzerland eats a Three Kings Cake with a lucky charm baked inside. I never celebrated this holiday in the United States, but now I look forward to it every year and enjoy sampling and making the two primary types of Three Kings Cakes. These Swiss cakes come in various shapes and sizes, and some of these differences vary by region. The fortunate person who finds the charm within the cake becomes the king or queen for a day. They even get to wear a paper crown.
Baking a cake with a charm inside it for January 6th (also known as Epiphany) is an old tradition, but Max Währen, an ambitious pastry researcher at the Richemont school revived it in Switzerland in the 1950s.
What kind of charm will you find in a Three Kings Cake? For a professionally-made cake, it’s typically a small plastic or ceramic king to symbolize the three wise men who visited Jesus on the twelfth day after his birth. In Suisse-Romande, this is referred to as a fève, which translates to broad bean or fava bean, as long ago a small bean was used as the charm.
One year, I bought a cake in Neuchâtel that contained two fèves. One of them was a tiny porcelain Lucille Ball. According to a Swiss friend, along with the traditional king figurines, bakers sometimes add a more modern image, like a Disney character. Much to my surprise, in our case it was a popular American actress and comedienne.
For home bakers, if you don’t have access to a small plastic king, you can use one whole almond, for example. I have used a pumpkin seed before. This year, I hid a small ball of marzipan inside one of the brioche buns that I made with raisins, chopped candied orange peel and chocolate chunks.
Here’s a quick description of the two primary types of Three Kings Cake in Switzerland:
1. Dreikönigskuchen (German)
Also known as… Brioche, Couronne or Gâteau des rois (French); and Torta dei Re Magi (Italian)
A brioche-style cake made with one large ball of dough in the center, surrounded by approximately 6-11 smaller dough balls. I have also seen this version take the shape of a ring loaf. The dough is often studded with raisins and topped with coarse grains of sugar. You’ll find the lucky charm hidden by the baker in one of the small buns surrounding the crown. These cakes are popular throughout Switzerland, but especially in German-speaking cantons.
2. Galette des Rois or Pithiviers (French)
A puff pastry pie filled with frangipane. The top of the crust usually has an elegant design cut into the pastry. It can also feature fluted edges. These cakes are more popular in French-speaking Switzerland. The fève in these cakes will be hidden in the frangipane filling.
What kind of Three Kings Cake do you prefer in Switzerland? I like them both, but my family prefers the brioche-style cake. Please take my poll below, and see how your preferences compare to others!