Epiphany’s King Cakes Are a January Treat in Paris
No sooner does Paris finish ringing in the New Year than its bakers and grocers unveil copious displays of galette des rois or king cakes. These commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus on Epiphany (Jan. 6), which marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival. However, they are so popular in the City of Light that they can be found there throughout the month of January.
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King cakes, also known as Twelfth Night cakes or Epiphany cakes, are found throughout the Christian world, with variations found through continental Europe, Great Britain, New Orleans and even Mexico, although the recipes vary widely from one place to another. The English variant, for example features preserved fruits and brandy, while the Provençal version uses a ring-shaped brioche base topped with candied fruit. The cake made in Paris and the rest of northern France since at least the early 14th century is composed of a frangipane or almond-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry and should be served warm.
King of the bean
What all versions share is the inclusion of a fève (bean), which since the late 19th century is just as likely to be a porcelain or metal charm. Whoever finds it is crowned “king of the bean,” and all galettes des rois come with a handy cardboard crown for the “coronation.” Some cakes also had a hidden dried pea, whose discoverer became “queen” for the night.
The ritual often takes on the gender-bending hilarity of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” but, historically, this inversion of the social order released tensions accrued during the rest of the year.
At Versailles, the queen and king of the bean received magnificent outfits in which to dazzle during their short-lived “reigns.” One especially intricate party held there in 1684 included five twelfth-night courts, seated at separate tables, who appointed “ambassadors” to negotiate with their neighbors.
When the French Revolution of 1789 put the kibosh on kings in addition to Christianity, a brief but failed attempt was made to squelch out, or at least rename, kings’ cakes. The Revolutionary Committee would have done better to take their cue from the fourth-century church fathers, who fixed the date of Christmas as Dec. 25, although most scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born in summer. The reason was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” acknowledgement that the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was too popular to stamp out. Instead, its raucous atmosphere, and, indeed the tradition of the “king of the bean” were co-opted and renamed, with a thin veneer of Christianity, Twelfth Night.
Traces of the tradition’s pagan origins survive in northern France, where it remains common for the youngest child of the household to sit under the table while an adult cuts the cake, calling out “Phoebe Domine, pour qui la part?” (“Lord Phoebus, for whom is this piece?”) The child replies by allocating the first slice to the Good Lord. This is also called the “piece of the poor,” or “the piece of the virgin,” which would be kept for the first needy person who requested it. The child then names the next person to whom each subsequent piece will be given.
King cakes a January treat
Parisians have a special attachment to the king cake that in part developed because an ancient law for centuries required the capital’s bakers to offer them free to clients as a form of étrennes, the requisite New Year’s gift, which is still popular in France. One early 20th-century baker complained that so-called “clients” appeared from the four corners of the city to claim a cake, never to be seen again.
The abolition of this onerous law in 1910 might well have killed off the galette des rois, which had already virtually disappeared in other cities. such as London. However, Parisians stood in line to pay for them and have done so ever since.
All January long bakeries sell them in dedicated, outdoor stands or stack their windows and display cases full of examples that range in size from the diameter of an English muffin to that of a truck’s wheel.
Monoprix, France’s version of an upscale Walmart, features them on the cover of their weekly bulletin, offering gift certificates as a prize to those who find a “golden bean.” Even the most pedestrian grocers offer a cheapo version.
However, according to the Jan. 5 edition of Le Parisien, the new trend in 2013 is for Parisians to bake their own. This phenomenon is evidenced by a recent spike in web searches for recipes for galette des rois, sales of frozen pâte feuilletée, and the surging popularity of cooking classes specializing in the cake.
In truth, it’s fairly easy and certainly lots of fun — just don’t forget the bean!
Parisian-Style Galette Des Rois
For this cake you need to make or buy two sheets of your favorite pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Julia Child offers intricate, illustrated instructions, if you’ve never made this before. Roll them out and cut out two disks of equal size, whatever size you prefer. Place one disk on a baking tray.
Make your favorite filling. Frangipane (see below) or almond cream are the classics. In fact, the component parts of a galette des rois are the same as those of a Pithiviers, as described by Child. The galette, however, being a more rustic preparation, is easier to assemble.
Spread a thin layer or egg yolk or water along the border of the bottom pastry layer. Then, spread an even layer of the filling across middle, leaving a small border at the edge.
Don’t forget the bean! You can use a dried bean, or any sort of small charm(s) that won’t melt in the oven.
Quickly cover with the second layer of pastry, and pinch them together gently but firmly, pressing slightly inward so that the two sides stick together well.
For a golden sheen, glaze it with a thin layer or egg yolk diluted with a bit of water
Cut diamonds or whatever pattern you’d like along the top with a sharp knife.
Bake in a hot (425 F) oven until golden brown; for a medium or large galette this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
Let it cool only slightly before serving, or, if prepared in advance, reheat it for a few minutes in a moderate oven.
True frangipane is a mixture of ⅓ crème patisserie and ⅔ almond cream.
For the crème patisserie:
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1. As you gently bring the milk to a boil, beat the sugar into the egg yolk for 2 or 3 minutes.
2. Beat in flour until it is very smooth and ribbon-like.
3. Pour the boiling milk over the mixture in a thin stream and whisk in a saucepan over low heat until smooth and thick.
For the almond cream:
½ cup melted butter (unsalted)
¾ cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
Optional: a splash of rum or almond extract
1. Add the almond cream ingredients together.
2. Add the two creams together and refrigerate until ready to use.
Two-person galette des rois by Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, Paris, who won the 2008 prize for best galette in the Île de France. Credit: Carolin Young