The Season of Epiphany

Three kings cakeIn western countries under Christian tradition, January 6 is Epiphany. Known as Three Kings’ Day in Hispanic and Latin culture, as well as some places in Europe. In Spain it is called: el Dia de los Tres Reyes, la Fiesta de Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag. Greek Orthodox Churches and related traditions (e.g., Russian and Serbian Orthodox) that still follow an older calendar celebrate Epiphany as the Theophany on January 19th.

Epiphany is the ending of the Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are usually counted from December 25th until January 5th. In most traditions, the day before Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the evening of which is called Twelfth Night.

The Twelfth Night is sometimes an occasion for feasting, including the baking of a special King’s Cake as part of the festivities of Epiphany (a King’s Cake is part of the observance of Mardi Gras in French Catholic culture of the Southern USA).

In some church traditions, January 5th is considered the Eleventh Day of Christmas, while the evening is still counted as the Twelfth Night, the beginning of the Twelfth day of Christmas the following day. In these traditions the Twelfth Day of Christmas is January 6th, the Epiphany.

King’s Cake

Brioche Dough:

1/2 cup lukewarm water, 110 to 115 degrees
2 packages dry yeast
4 1/2 to 5 1/2 C sifted flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
3 eggs
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
dime, dried bean, or miniature doll


green, purple, and yellow food coloring, pastes
3/4 cup granulated sugar (12 tablespoons)


3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice, strained
3 to 6 tablespoons water
2 candied cherries, halved

Soften yeast in water. Combine flour, sugar, nutmeg and salt in mixing bowl.

Stir in lemon peel.

Make a well in center and pour into it the yeast mixture and milk.

Add eggs and egg yolks, and with a large wooden spoon gradually incorporate dry ingredients into liquid ones.

Beat in butter and continue beating until dough forms ball. (Mixing of the dough can be done in a food processor.)

Place ball on floured board and incorporate more flour if necessary, by sprinkling it over ball by the tablespoon.

Knead until smooth and elastic. Brush inside of large bowl with 1 tablespoon softened butter. Set dough in bowl and turn it so as to butter entire surface. (At this point you can refrigerate dough overnight.)

Cover bowl and set aside for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in bulk.

Brush a large baking sheet with remaining butter.

Punch dough down on lightly floured surface.

Knead, then pat and shape dough into a cylinder about 14 inches long.

Place on baking sheet and form into a ring.

Press bean or doll into dough so that it is hidden.

Set aside again to rise.

When ready to bake brush the top and sides of the ring with the egg-milk mixture.

Bake King’s Cake in middle of oven at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Slide cake onto wire rack to cool.

Prepare the colored sugars by squeezing a dab of green paste into the palm of one hand.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of sugar over the paste and rub your hands together to color the sugars evenly.

Set aside and repeat the process with green, then twice with purple and yellow. (Do not mix sugars.)

When the cake has cooled prepare the icing.

Combine the confectioner’s sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons of water in a deep bowl and stir until the icing mixture is smooth.

If too stiff to spread, beat in 1 teaspoonful water at a time, until desired consistency is reached.

With a small metal spatula, spread the icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to run down the sides.

Sprinkle the colored sugars over the icing immediately, forming a row of purple, yellow, and green strips, each about 2 inches wide, on both sides of the ring.

Arrange 2 cherry halves at each end of the cake, pressing them gently into the icing.

History of King’s Cake

A festive American bread that is a traditional part of the carnival season and the notable Mardi Gras celebrations. The King Cake arrived in New Orleans with the first French settlers and has remained to this day. Baked in the shape of a circle to represent the unity of Christianity, the bread is decorated with icing and colored sugars denoting the three Kings who visited the baby Jesus on the 12th day after Christmas, the day of Epiphany.

A small figure of the baby Jesus is placed inside the bread and the person receiving the piece of bread containing the figure is the one responsible for making the King Cake the following year. According to tradition, the King Cake can only be prepared between Epiphany on January 6th, when the carnival begins, until the first day of Lent. Over time, people have developed their own variations for this bread including different fillings and toppings, but the selection of colors for the topping is always purple, green, and gold, which represents justice, faith, and power, respectively.

The bread itself is made from a yeast dough of bread flour or all-purpose flour. European breads that are similar to King’s Cake include Twelfth Night Bread from Spain and Bolo-Rei from Portugal.

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Sylvia Cochran

Sylvia is a writer, born and raised in Germany. Having been exposed to a variety of religions and traditions due to travel and study, Sylvia has been a student of the Bible for more than ten years and has for the last four years taught in small groups about Biblical principles, practical Christianity, Christian parenting, as well as the spiritual use of money.

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