France may no longer have a king, but we do have King Cake, a traditional dessert you’ll find in pastry shops all over the country just in time for Epiphany on January 6th.
While King Cake, or galette des rois, was once a Catholic tradition associated with the arrival of the three wise men at the birthplace of Jesus, in secular France, the cake has become more of a celebration of the New Year: you’ll find galettes on French tables from the beginning of January through to the end of February – and with it, an intriguing tradition.
What Is King Cake?
Unlike in New Orleans, where King Cake is made with a brioche dough and brightly colored icing, in France, galette is a combination of buttery puff pastry and frangipane, a sweetened almond-based paste similar to marzipan.
Most galettes are big enough to share, though you’ll also find individual portioned ones, as well as galettes with added flavors, like pistachio, coconut, or chocolate.
How Do You Eat a King Cake?
King Cake is not eaten like other pastries: there is a ritual involved in galettes, and it begins with the youngest member of the party getting under the table.
You see, each King Cake contains a fève: in the past, a fava bean was used, though most modern galettes contain instead a porcelain trinket, hidden in one of the pieces. Once the youngest member of the party is under the table, the galette is sliced, and as the slicer points to each piece, the names of the other members of the party are called out from under the table, assigning each slice to a diner.
Once each person has his or her slice, it’s time to dig in, but attention! The fève can be hard on the teeth if you’re not expecting it. The person with the fève in his or her slice gets to be king (or queen) of the day, sporting a golden paper crown that is sold with the galette itself.
Where Can I Try one?
While galettes are sold in nearly every pastry shop in the capital, there are a few that are noteworthy.
Pierre Hermé, for example, is a master not only of the macaron but of the galette: his version is available in plain, chocolate, and ispahan varieties (the last is a fruity combination of rose, raspberry, and litchi.) The unique spiral design of the top of the galette is reflected in the abstract shape of the fève within.
Benoit Castel is another favorite this year: his inverted puff pastry is crisper and lighter than most, and his traditional filling is elevated thanks to Madagascar vanilla. The fèves were produced in collaboration with le Coq Toqué, a producer of artisanal Normandy apple cider: some Kings will also win a bottle of the cider for a very regal tasting indeed!
Discovered any other delicious galettes in Paris? Tell us about your favorites in the comments or on Facebook.
Image care of Steph Gray