Picture of mini galette des rois
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Galette des Rois – A Guide to the French Kings’ Cake

On est le 6 janvier ! It’s January 6, which means it’s galette des rois à gogo. But what is this “Kings’ Cake” that so many francophones go gaga over? And why, oh why, should you make sure you chew it carefully? Let’s take a closer look…

 

The Galette des Rois in 8 (Generous) Slices

 

1 – C’est quoi, la galette des rois ?

 

The galette des rois (literally: “Cake of the Kings”) is a seasonal cake that takes over the window displays of French bakeries and pastry shops every January. You may also see it in other French-speaking countries and regions with Christian traditions (like Québec) or in other places with French expat communities.

 

In its traditional form, the galette des rois is a simple, round pastry. It’s also quite flat, which is why it’s une galette, not un gâteau. Composition-wise, it’s essentially two stacked discs of puff pastry with a creamy almond filling in between and a small charm called la fève hidden within. The top is brushed with an egg wash and scored in delightful patterns unique to the baker or bakery. And the final product is a beautifully browned work of artflaky enough to warrant the accompaniment of a vacuum cleaner and special enough to be a time-honoured French tradition.

 

If I were to liken it to something more recognizable—and risk provoking the ire of some French, but I’ll do it anyway—I’d describe it as a big almond croissant in pie form… with a surprise inside! For the serious baker or foodie, the galette also resembles another French creation: the pithivier.

 

Why is it so popular? For many French families, the galette des rois is simply part of starting the new year right. And for revelers bemoaning the end of the holidays, it’s the proverbial one last hurrah before the Christmas trees come down and routine returns.

 

 

2 – Galette Season

When do we eat les galettes des rois? The official day to celebrate is January 6, aka l’Épiphanie or le Jour des rois (“the Day of the Kings”). However, some families celebrate and eat their Kings’ Cake on the first Sunday of the year.

 

As for the bakeries, which delight in the first-quarter frenzy of sales and profits, some will extend the galette season to last the entire month of January. There are also whispers of retailers who begin selling cakes before Christmas, but that’s largely mal vu (frowned upon).

 

3 – A Kingly Cake

 

So what makes the galette des rois kingly enough to be called the “Cake of the Kings“? And who are these eponymous kings anyway?

 

Historians believe the galette is a vestige of the Roman Saturnalia, a pagan festival held in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. During the festivities, everyone—both free men and slaves—would gather and celebrate with a special cake. Slices would be distributed and whoever got the piece with the bean in it would be “king” for the day.

 

But to many people, the galette and Christianity are indissociable and this is due to the Catholic Church’s appropriation of the Roman celebration. By tying it to the epiphany of Jesus (“King of Kings”) to les rois mages (the Magi or “Three Kings”), the Church provided its own link to royalty.

 

The galette’s modern popularity, however, is mostly non-monarchical and nonreligious. It comes from the joyful family tradition of crowning a king or queen for the day and seeing the artisanal creations of the boulangerie-pâtisseries!

 

4 – Le Tirage des Rois

 

Going back to les Saturnales and the interesting practice of choosing a king for the day, this tradition continues with the galette des rois. The modern ritual for the tirage des rois (the drawing or selection of kings) is as follows:

 

    1. The youngest child hides under the table so that the galette is out of his or her view. (This is for impartiality.)
    2. The one slicing the cake asks, “C’est pour qui, cette part ?” or some variation of that question.
    3. The child names a recipient for each newly carved piece: “C’est pour…” (It’s for…)
    4. The one who gets the slice with a tiny figurine declares, “J’ai la fève !” (I have the fève.)
    5. He or she is then declared le Roi—or la Reine (the queen)—and gets to wear the paper crown accompanying the cake!

 

This arrangement is obviously helpful to the adults slicing the cake; they often conspire to have one of the kids win!

 

5 – La fève… et les fabophiles!

 

Now, what exactly is this fève? La fève is the small figurine or charm baked into the almond layer. Traditionally, it was a fava bean, hence, fève. But the modern version is usually a porcelain trinket, hence the need to warn you: chew carefully!

 

(Fun fact: In the US, where choking hazards and chipped teeth are fair game for litigation, some bakeries leave out the ceramics altogether and include a whole almond instead.)

 

The figurines can take any form, from traditional biblical characters, to quirky objects and curiously anthropomorphic animals. Some bakers even capitalize on trends and current events, offering collectible effigies of politicians or pop culture personalities. In fact, so momentous was the death of Franco-Belgian rockstar Johnny Hallyday that some bakers were still slipping mini Hallyday sculptures into their galettes over a year later!

 

While stamps and coins are the obsession of some, the fève has its own following too: collectors are known as fabophiles. And you’ll see their staggering home-museum collections in the news this time of year!

 

If this strikes you as a dream marketing opportunity, then you’ve tapped into the commercial genius behind galette-mania. The fève is such a prime marketing tool that some haut de gamme (high-end) bakeries have built Willy-Wonka-esque campaigns around it. Sometimes, the winning fève itself will be special, perhaps containing gold. Sometimes, it’ll get you a fancy dinner or some other extravagant prize. (The French retailer Monoprix is known for offering diamonds! How fève-ulous!)

 

6 – Crème d’amande ou Crème frangipane?

 

Nuts about the almond filling? If you’re wondering what it is, it’s either la crème d’amande (a cream made of sweet almonds, butter, eggs, and sugar) or la crème frangipane (frangipane). Most galettes contain frangipane, which is basically la crème d’amande extended with la crème pâtissière (pastry cream). This is often a cost-cutting measure, but a top-notch, creamy frangipane can be wildly delicious in its own right!

 

That said, the galette is not always an almond-lover’s affair! Though tradition is dear in France, variety is both the spice of life and the experimental maître pâtissier‘s friend, as evidenced by the annual showcase of subversive creations. While the almond version is definitely le classique des classiques, some modern galettes feature chocolate, other nuts, fruits, and even infusions of tea! It’s all part of the fun and appeal of this eagerly anticipated tradition.

 

7 – Les différentes versions

 

Mais attends, attends ! Hold up! It would be remiss of me to glorify the galette des rois without mentioning that, as with many things in France, there are regional variations. Not all Kings’ Cakes are created equal!

 

While the almond-filled galette is king in northern France, many southerners grow up eating the gâteau des rois, a ring-shaped brioche topped with sucre perlé (pearl sugar) and jewel-like fruits confits (candied fruits). This couronne briochée or “brioche crown” variant closely resembles the roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes cake eaten in Spain and in other Spanish-speaking cultures. Like its northern cousin, it contains a fève, but it lacks the almond cream and is more bread-like in texture.

 

 

As shown in this map by Mathieu Avanzi, the regional language expert who created the site Français de nos régions, there are also different names for these cakes. The question is: where do your loyalties lie?

 

8 – La version présidentielle

 

Finally, though most galettes contain a fève, there’s one that never does: the one served at the Palais de l’Élysée for the French president’s galette party.

 

Mais pourquoi ? But why? In a republic that famously guillotined its monarchs and dispatched other would-be royals, the optics of declaring a king is problematic. Even in good fun, one mustn’t hint at the return of royalty!

 

As a result, guests can expect a massive but fève-less galette—with no couronne en papier (paper crown). Vive la République !

 

Time to Crown the King (or Queen)!

 

Craving la galette des rois now? I wouldn’t blame you; it’s delicious! It’s also an immersive culinary and cultural experience that students at any level can enjoy. So as you contemplate which galette to sink your teeth into, here are some of the famous creations that have graced the papers in recent years!

 

As one would say, bonne galette à toutes et à tous ! 

 

Vanity Fair France’s Shortlist of Galettes for 2020

Elle France’s Shortlist of Galettes for 2021

 

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Did you enjoy this guide to the Galette des Rois ? Looking for more articles about tasty French topics?

Ah, a reader after my own heart. Let me make this easier for you. Find all my posts about my favourite topic—food—right here.

 

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