King Cake Season
When I used to live in France a few years ago, I would scour the internet for puff pastry come December each year. This would come as a surprise to those who know me, even to myself, as I’ve never been a fan of pastries and cakes.
But France broke me. I found myself increasingly making an exception for pastries and treats. Pain au chocolat became a constant in the mornings, best washed down with a mug of café au lait.
In most countries, the last days of December mark a somewhat dreary end to the holidays, where everyone’s almost dreading to go back to the hustle and bustle of daily life in the new year. Not in France. Even as people are making their way home from Christmas family get-togethers, boulangeries and patisseries across the country herald the start of galette des rois (king cake) season with enticing displays of golden brown galettes and shiny paper crowns.
The galette des rois is traditionally eaten on January 6 and celebrates Epiphany, the day the Magi, or the Three Kings, visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the buttery, flaky layers of golden brown puff pastry filled with frangipane, a velvety and dense almond-flavored cream. In southern France, the galette des rois takes a different form, a giant brioche donut decorated with colorful candied fruit.
More than the galette itself, the ritual of eating the galette may be part of the reason why this tradition is so enduring in France.
There is a porcelain fève, originally a fava bean, hidden in the galette. As someone slices the galette, the youngest person in the family would hide under the table and call out the names of everyone present, assigning them their slice. Whoever gets the fève will be crowned king or queen for the day, complete with a golden paper crown that comes with every galette.
Speak to any French person and I’m pretty sure most of them would have fond childhood memories of the galette des rois. Some parents might also secretly locate the fève in the galette while their child is under the table to make sure the child gets the slice with the fève.
As a late-stage adopter, I dove into the tradition hard, with the wide-eyed fascination of a child coupled with the financial frivolity of an adult. The options are endless. There are traditional galettes with frangipane filling or trendy ones with exciting flavors ranging from vanilla and chestnut to pistachio, pear and chocolate.
My friend Lilian would organize galette-tasting parties every year without fail. It makes for a lovely excuse to catch up with friends in the new year – as well as indulge in as many galettes as is humanly possible.
I don’t remember if I had bitten into any fèves at her parties but I do remember the delicious galette we shared with sweet red bean paste filling by a Japanese patissier in Paris.
From fancy galettes made by celebrity pastry chefs peddled by luxury hotels to frozen supermarket galettes you need only to heat up in your oven, there is something for everyone. Some supermarkets even stock single-serving galettes with a fève – a guaranteed prize for anyone with a fear of missing out.
For me, half the fun is in choosing which galette to buy – or rather, picking the year’s most desirable fève. Artisanal bakeries present custom-designed and collectible fèves every year. With enthusiastic collectors in mind, some patisseries offer complete sets of limited edition fèves for sale, without the galette.
I have to admit there is also a slightly selfish dilemma of organizing galette des rois parties at home: there is a chance that the gorgeous fève I handpicked might go to a guest.
French patissier Sébastien Gaudard’s fèves are almost as delectable as his delicate galettes. In 2019, he collaborated with fashion designer Christine Phung to produce a series of playful fèves shaped like everyday objects including an aspirin seal, a pen cap, a chewing gum and a pencil sharpener.
An Australian girlfriend, and fellow fève enthusiast, had found a golden Emmanuel Macron fève in her galette one year although we still joke that it looks more like Nicolas Sarkozy.
I thought I was unusually lucky every January when we had the galette at home with my French husband and my mother-in-law.
It was only years after, when we were preparing to savor the galette des rois with our toddler for the first time, that I realized my husband, who was always the one slicing galettes at home, had made sure I would get the slice with the fève every time.