January 6th is celebrated in Christendom as the day the Three Kings, the Magi, the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem to present the Baby Jesus with three portentous gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today Three Kings Day (or the Epiphany), is celebrated by its very own cake.
According to tradition the King Cake makes its first appearance on Twelfth Night, or the eve of the Epiphany, and continues to be a party centerpiece through Mardi Gras, when the winter festivities screech to a halt and the weeks of Lenten penance begin.
In France, the cake is called a galette des rois (king cake), but there is not just one kind. In her book French Farmhouse Cooking, Susan Herrmann Loomis explains that in January…
Patisserie and boulangerie shelves fill with galettes, which differ according to geography. In the north of France, the galette is a flat, shiny round of puff pastry usually filled with frangipane, or almond cream. In the south of France, the galette is made of brioche, usually flavored with lemon zest. In Brittany, galettes resemble Breton Cake studded with candied fruit. All contain a fève.
Fèves are tiny porcelain figurines made specially for galettes des rois (king cake); in earlier days a coin or dried bean (fève) was used.
The word fève carried over to the current incarnation that has expanded to include a multitude of imagery, from religious figures to farm animals to celebrities. Some fèves are issued in limited edition and are collected by “fabophiles, ”
The fève of choice is placed in the gâteau or galette either before it’s baked or carefully slipped through a seam in the crust when it is done. The person who finds the hidden fève in their piece of cake is dubbed “king” or “queen” of the feast. (They also must buy next year’s galette!) In some regions in France a child crawls under the table and designates who gets which slice, sight unseen—perhaps the original blind tasting.
The galette des rois is not difficult to make and can be filled with frangipane (almond cream) or fruits or even chocolate. Fèves can be ordered from Faboland, a French company that specializes in fèves and ships worldwide. See this recipe for apple galette in French—Google can translate it—and the video below, or this one with almond filling from David Lebovitz,
Where to find galettes des rois
If you would rather buy a French king cake, you may be in luck. The galettes are gaining in popularity outside France as French bakeries open in cities and towns worldwide. This year you can find galettes des rois at multiple Le Pain Quotidien locations. Frenchly.us lists French bakeries in New York City, including Dominique Ansel, Financier, and Maison Kayser in Manhattan; French Tart and Provence en Boîte in Brooklyn; and Chocopain in New Jersey. Check their websites as most offer the galettes for only a few weeks in January. You’ll find galettes des rois at Le Pain de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo. Many French-related organizations, like the French Institute/Alliance Francaise, hold Galettes des Rois events in January, another way to get your galette fix.
Whether you make your own or buy one at a patisserie, a galette des rois can offer a bit of merriment in an otherwise dreary month. And if you find the fève you’ll become Queen (or King) for the year.
Top photo from Dominique Ansel Bakery.
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