In France, New Year’s greetings and king’s cakes go hand in hand. After all the Christmas bûches de Noël (yule log cakes), it’s immediately time for the galettes des rois (king’s or kings’ cakes). During the season of Epiphanie, also known as la Fête des rois (Three Kings Day, or Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night), just about every French pâtisserie displays dozens of these deep golden rounds in its windows in late December and January.
Les galettes are proof that the sacred continues to infuse French life and cuisine even if fewer people actually observe this traditionally religious day. According to the Bible, three kings or Magi came to pay homage to the baby Jesus and brought him gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” recounts this journey. Today, the arrival of the Magi and the news of the birth of Jesus to the Gentiles are commemorated by many Christians twelve days after Christmas. This beautiful panel of stained glass from the medieval basilica of St. Denis just north of Paris illustrates the Epiphany events…
So what exactly is a galette des rois? In the northern part of France, a galette is made of puff pastry filled with a delicious almond cream called frangipane. The southern France version called a gâteau des rois, however, is more like brioche, a rich egg bread, and comes studded with candied fruits. What makes the cake eternally festive in France is the tradition of hiding a lucky charm, or fève (literally “bean”) inside the round cake. Even though many pastry chefs today use small porcelain or plastic figurines instead of a bean, family and friends still gather around the table as the cake is cut. And whoever receives the piece with the fève inside is king or queen for the day (or year) and wears the gold paper crown that accompanies the galette.
And how do you buy a king’s cake in France? Most French pastry shops sell the whole galettes in various sizes from four persons on up. Then when it’s time to eat it, you cut the galette in slices like a pie. One of our local pastry shops here in the French countryside near Paris often makes a huge one – about three feet in diameter so it’s really for show – and gives out little pieces to its customers during Epiphanie. Then too you’ll see pastry shops selling a one-person galette about three inches across – not a bad way to do it since you’ll be sure to get the fève!
Interestingly, les fèves have become quite collectible in recent years. I see flea market vendors all over France with huge tables of the porcelain charms for sale. Here are selections from some marchands de fèves (lucky charm vendors – what a job!) at the Aix-en-Provence and Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antique markets. Some people collect them just for fun and to display. Others use them in their own homemade king’s cakes.
If you’ve shopped around lately in Paris for a king’s cake, you have probably come across ‘mod’ versions at some hip Paris pastry shops. Ultra-cool French pastry chefs always like to put their particular take on traditional pastry offerings and galettes des rois are no exception. Citrus, pistachio, chocolate, pineapple, coconut and other exotic flavors – and even shapes – now show up in king’s cakes at fancy pâtisseries such as Fauchon, Pierre Hermé and others. You can click here for fabulous photo parade of this year’s best king’s cakes in Paris from the French newspaper Le Figaro – all 29 of them!
Many of the big pastry shop names also offer a special collection or coffret de fèves each year that fans can buy. Click here to see this year’s limited edition set from Ladurée which features three multi-colored, mini-macaron charms for 14 euros – a must for any almond macaron fan. And Fauchon has special editions of six individually numbered fèves 2018 for 60 euros. (Be sure and click on the links for photos.) While these shiny new collections are tempting, it might be more fun – and memorable – to put together one’s own set by rummaging through the colorful piles of figurines at the French flea markets. Yet another great reason to travel to France – bonne année (happy new year) to you and yours!