by Jennifer V. Cole
In France, friends and family break bread every January with a traditional galette des rois.
The quietly unassuming cousin to the king cake, the galette des rois enters the pastry scene at the tail end of the holiday season. For centuries, this golden round of puff pastry and rich almond frangipane has marked Epiphany or Twelfth Night, a January 6 celebration of the three kings (or wise men) arriving in Bethlehem. In fact, the French government, who has never shied away from their role in defining the eating and drinking habits of the nation, traces the tradition back to early Roman times.
Though it might lack the live-out-loud vivacity of its New Orleans cousin (colored sugar, thick cream cheese filling, encircled by Mardi Gras beads), this traditional galette is the center of gatherings among family and friends all throughout January, and often up until March. In its very French way, it is classic, simple, refined—consider it the little black dress of holiday desserts.
During the doldrums of winter, when the post-Christmas hangover of good cheer starts to subside, people routinely issue invitations to pop around for a slice of galette des rois and a glass of cider or sweet white wine. Less involved than a dinner party, more casual than cocktails, the often-impromptu nature of this January ritual coaxes a familial vibe out of an often formal society. Though the puff pastry version with its creamy almond filling is the most common, southern France tends to celebrate with a brioche cake flavored with the essence of orange flower, shaped into a crown, and topped with red fruits and sugar.
Tradition dictates that a small fève, or bean, is baked within the cake. And it is customary to cut the galette into precisely enough pieces for everyone gathered to have a slice, plus one more. That extra piece, known as the “part du pauvre,” should go to the first poor person who knocks on the door—a nod to the giving spirit of the kings. These days, the bean has mostly been replaced by a small porcelain figurine, and whoever finds it is named king (or queen) for the day—assuming they don’t end up with a different sort of crown by biting too hastily.
For children, finding the fève ranks right up there with winning the lottery. It grants adults the privilege of buying (or making) the next galette, like a sugar-fueled game of tag, with cakes. It’s said that, in the royal French court, if a lady found the fève, she was named queen of France for the day and could ask the king to grant her a special wish. Supposedly Louis XIV, the Sun King, put an end to that. That’s probably a good thing. These days, bakers assemble each year to create a massive galette (enough to feed 150 people) at the Élysée Palace. But the baker and pastry chef are forbidden from putting a fève into the cake. After all, you can’t have a king in the presidential palace of the Republic. Certainly not one crowned by letting them eat cake.