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« La galette des rois », French King Cake

« La galette des rois », French King Cake

Published on January 18, 2012
In the beginning of January, French bakeries are filled with a special cake: la galette. Much more than just a cake, this pastry is a beloved tradition that traces its roots back to the Roman Empire.
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The tradition of Tirer les rois that is to say to "Find the King" at the beginning of the New Year has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Age and the French Revolution. Why so? Is it the great taste of the pastry, the change of roles for one day, the significance of this event, the satisfaction of finding the lucky charm, la fève? Everyone has their own interpretation, from the frangipane lovers to the youngest child at the table that has the right to decide for who is the next slice to the lucky charm collectors, everyone has his reason to love this tradition.

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A galette in a French bakery
Source: FlickR - keepps

THE FRENCH CELEBRATION: HOW IT WORKS

The Galette des Rois is a way for French people to celebrate the Epiphany, the arrival of the Three Wise men (Magi). Every year, on January 6th, people gather pour tirer les rois, to find the kings. The traditional galette is cut in a very specific number of slices: one slice for each person sitting at the table plus one. The extra slice is symbolic for the first poor person passing by.

The youngest person in the room goes under the table, and announces who gets the next slice. The youngest person is said to be the most innocent one and therefore fair in the distribution of the slices. Such an importance is given to the distribution because of the lucky charm, la fève, hidden in the galette.

Initially, the lucky charm was a bean but it has since evolved and was replaced at the end of the XIXth century by porcelain trinkets, and today porcelain or plastic trinkets. Today, the diversity of lucky charms is so important that people collect them. It is called “favophilie”. If you want to learn more about favophilie, here is a French website dedicated to this hobby: click here

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"La fève!"
Source: FlickR - Yuichi

The person that gets the slice with the lucky charm becomes "the king" for the day. French bakeries sell the Galette with a paper golden crown. The king of the day is supposed to wear the crown as a symbol of royalty. Even if becoming a king for one day does not have a real influence, children (and adults!) still get excited about it because of the fun of it. In the end, the most important part remains the gathering and sharing of something delicious with friends and family.

Three main different types of Galettes exist throughout France:

  • La Galette de Pithiviers, the traditional one, which is a round cake with flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane
  • La Galette de Besancon or Galette Comtoise, from the east of France, which is only made from a specific dough and sugar
  • Le Gateau des Rois, especially popular in the south of France, it is a crown shaped brioche filled with candied fruits.

Though, the Galette des Rois is now a celebration of epiphany, the tradition of tirer les rois, existed before the development of Christian church.

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The three "galettes"
Source: FlickR - joriavlis

THE HISTORY OF LA GALLETTE DES ROIS

The Saturnalia was an ancient Roman Festival held from the end of December through the beginning of January to honor Saturn, the Roman god for Agriculture who symbolized the Golden Age. This very festive period allowed for some usually forbidden activities, like gambling. But one of the major traditions was to reverse the roles between master and slave. One slave was designated as “the king of the day”. To be designated, a cake with a bean hidden inside it was cut in as many slices as there were slaves and the youngest member of the family would determine which slice was for whom.

During the Middle-Ages, the time of the Galette was used during the time of feudal fees. It was a custom to give one Galette to his own master. The Galette des Rois was even celebrated at Louis XIV’s royal table!

Due to a famine in 1711, the Galette was forbidden so that flour would only be used to make bread. But this measure was not completely implemented and the Galette des Rois survived especially outside of Paris.

Another rough time was the French Revolution. Everything that had something to do with royalty had to disappear. The Galette des Rois became Galette de l’Egalité, or Equality Cake, and the day of the Kings became the day of the Sans-Culottes (French revolutionaries from lower classes). These changes were temporary, and soon Galette was back on every French table!

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Source: FlickR - caliparisien

In 1801, the Concordat set the date of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, establishing the tradition of the Galette des Rois on a permanent basis in France.

Now that you know the history of the Galette des Rois, the only thing missing is the recipe!

HOW ABOUT A HOME-MADE GALETTE? Recipe for the traditional Galette with frangipane

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Source: French Ministry of Agriculture

Ingredients:
-  ½ cup of Sugar
-  1/3 cup of Butter
-  2 eggs
-  2 yolks
-  1 cup of Ground almond
-  2 rolls of puff pastry

For the frangipane

Whip the sugar and the butter at room temperature until the mix whitens. Add one whole egg while keeping whipping, then the ground almond and then the other egg. Mix well.

For the puff pastry

Cook or buy the equivalent of 2 rolls of puff pastry. Spread each puff pastry in the shape of a plate. On one of the puff pastry, pour the Frangipane in the middle and spread it on the pastry while avoiding the sides. Put the other pastry on top and roll the sides towards the inside to seal the galette. Then take a brush and spread some yolk on the whole cake to give it a golden color. Let the whole cake rest for 45 minutes. Spread again some yolk. With a knife, draw horizontal and vertical lines on the dough (without cutting it!) and put in an oven for 25 minutes at 400 F. Serve mild or hot and enjoy!

You might also be interested in these articles:
- The French “art de vivre”: The Special Bond of French People with their Food
- A Look back at the last 250 Years of French Agriculture
- The Product of The Month: Discover a new French product every month : its characteristics, its history and recipes to use it!

The picture used for the logo comes from FlickR Gael Chardon

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