The French have just the thing for keeping the post-holiday blues away (No, it’s not perpetual ennui)
When I first came to Paris, I felt something magical and I knew that this was where I wanted to spend my life. I’m happy to say I’ve accomplished my goal (well, unless I get kicked out at my next visa renewal meeting), but some problems remain. Among them: I miss my family and best friends. I miss omnipresent toilets and air-conditioning, New York pizza, fresh bagels, my parents’ cooking…. The list goes on. Sometimes it really gets me.
But they say it’s always darkest before dawn. Because right now, in addition to my love for this beautiful, amazing city, and my husband, cat, and son, there’s something else to make living in France totally worth it: la galette des rois.
A few years ago, if you’d told me that king cake would be something that I cherished, I would have laughed in disbelief. Every year in middle and high school, our French teacher would break out king cake to celebrate Mardi Gras. It was probably a nice break for her, and maybe also a way to stick it to the Spanish classes, with their festive Cinco de Mayo parties and whatnot. The cake was decent, but it was, ultimately, just a cake like any other, somewhat garishly decorated and dubiously colored by artificial means. Meh.
The fun thing, of course, was that there was the fève, a little object (today usually a tiny plastic baby in Cajun tradition, and a ceramic figurine in French tradition) hidden inside one of the pieces. Whoever got the piece of cake with the fève inside got a little gilded paper crown to wear!
….Okay, it kind of made us want to defect to Spanish class, where everyone wore sombreros and had tacos and listened to upbeat music on that fifth day of May….but still, king cake was better than another day of verb conjugation.
So, that was my early life with king cake.
Then, sometime over the course of my later life in France, I was born again.
I often remember important dates, but for some reason, I can’t tell you when it was that I tasted my first French king cake — which shall hereafter be referred to by its French name, la galette des rois — or, as is more common, simply la galette. All I know is that it began an enduring love affair.
A galette des rois is usually round-shaped, with a flaky, croissant-like outside, and a soft inside normally filled with frangipane, an almond paste. There are other possible fillings, though. For example, applesauce seems a popular alternative. But the traditional — and for me, the best, even over chocolate(!) — is frangipane, hands down. Don’t even try to give me a galette filled with anything else; I will regard that as sacrilege.
I don’t remember my first taste of a galette des rois. That and every subsequent bite have melded into a collective swirl of culinary bliss. I quickly came to love galettes, which are all the more precious because they’re only available for a few months each year. This makes sense, of course, since the “rois” (“kings”) that the galette’s name refers to are the Three Kings, or Wise Men, who came to visit the newborn Jesus and bring him really expensive gifts like frankincense and myrrh. (Today they’d probably bring crude oil and maybe a yacht or something, but times were different then.) The galette is the traditional dessert of the Epiphany, the day that celebrates this visit. According to my French calendar, this day falls on January 6th, but in some Christian cultures, it’s celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and January 8. Galettes are sold from mid-December, until around the end of February (thus including Mardi Gras, following Cajun tradition). Desperate addicts like myself might still be able to pick up remaining pre-packaged ones at grocery stores until the beginning of March.
My passion for galettes is so great that one year, when I was back in the US, the man I was in love with at the time called me from France, and much as I missed him and wanted to be with him, what bothered me even more was that he’d told me he’d just had a piece of galette for dessert. The thought of not being in France when galettes are available broke my heart a little.
As a lover of galettes, you might wonder if I have an opinion as to where the best one(s) can be bought. I do, but it may disappoint you. While just about every bakery sells galettes of all sizes (even tiny, one- or two -person ones), I often find them too greasy. So, I have to admit, my absolute favorite galettes are pre-packaged, Leader Price brand grocery-store ones, which are dry and crispy on the outside and still wonderfully soft on the inside. The pre-packaged Pasquier brand galettes are also good, and generally a bit moister. But they’re often hard to find. (Also, a word of warning: if you’re in France during galette season, be careful if you buy a pre-packaged galette: it must say “frangipane” somewhere on the box, or else it’s probably stuffed with something else. Like that dumb applesauce.) Some of you foodies out there might be groaning in despair, but I can’t be the only person in France who prefers these grocery store galettes — they often sell out quickly, which is why I stock up.
In the French tradition, the galette is eaten with a group of people, usually children. The youngest is in charge of saying who gets which piece. The person whose slice includes the fève gets to be king or queen for the day — which is why most galettes are sold with a paper crown. Some people say the king or queen has to buy the next galette, and when it’s children, the king/queen often has to be the leader of a game.
Neither my husband nor any of my friends are big galette fans, and my son isn’t quite old enough to get the concept and lead a game. Our cat, Ali, loves frangipane, but even if the chunk of frangipane I give him has the fève inside, he refuses to wear the crown or play a game. So my galette-eating experience generally involves savoring a slice each morning, and annoying my husband at the breakfast table when I inevitably come to the piece with the fève, at which point I clap my hands and crown myself. This year, though, I may have to relinquish the crown to my almost-two-year old. Oh well….
Fèves themselves have a history, of course, as does the whole custom of the galette des rois. According to this French Wikipedia article, there was a similar concept in ancient Roman times, when a slave who got the fève in his (or her?) piece of holiday cake was “king for the day” and could order his/her master around. The tradition was adapted into Christian culture, and changed for the better in every way, with the large-scale exclusion of slavery, and the gradual development of the galette into the taste/texture combination I cherish today.
Originally, the fève was an uncooked bean. In France today, upscale boulangeries usually place very elaborate charm-like trinkets in their galettes. But, generally, modern fèves are (often misshapen) ceramic figurines. Many of them represent religious figures you’d find in a manger. These are called santons. But there are also secular ones in the form of animals and even movie or cartoon characters.
Here are of some of the fèves I’ve accumulated over the years:
Some people collect them, but I just feel bad throwing them out. Though there are a few that I’d keep no matter what. Like this funky frog:
or this shepherdess (love her dress) and little blue-gray donkey:
Or this fève, another shepherdess (a common shape, since it refers to the shepherds who saw the star that announced the birth of Christ). I found it in one of the first galettes I ever ate. That’s a great memory, not only because of the deliciousness of the galette, but because I shared this particular experience with loved ones:
And now, in honor of them and…uh…it being almost-Epiphany…and…you, dear reader, I think I’ll go have a slice of galette…..
Whoa! Or, as the French would say, La vache! My first slice of galette this year has the fève in it! I hope this angel (at least that’s what I think it is),
will bring us all peace, health, and happiness — and delicious food — in the new year.
I originally published a version of this post (which I’ve updated slightly) several years ago, on my old blog on the now-defunct Open Salon. Although many things have changed since then (including renovating our apartment, and my son coming into our lives), my love of galettes remains the same. Just tonight, my husband came home from work and told me he had a surprise for me. It was a Pasquier brand galette.