I’ll confess to not knowing much (anything, is more like it) about Twelfth Night and Epiphany celebrations before we moved to France. I knew nothing of the traditional galette des Rois – and I still struggle to say the word “rois” properly. It’s the french “R” that reveals my American roots every time.
Embarrassingly, we were here nearly 2 years before I learned anything at all. And then, I only heard about it because Talia came home beaming from school one day. She was the one who found the trinket in her piece of king cake and she was abuzz with excitement. That was last year and it was then that I decided I needed to learn more about this tradition. I quizzed her as only an ex-pat parent can and then promptly high-tailed it to the corner boulangerie to purchase our first galette des Rois.
In hindsight, if I’d paid any attention at all during the month of January I would have noticed how the boulangeries become galette des Rois factories about this time of year. The holiday celebrates the day on which the three kings came to pay their tribute to the famous baby-boy just recently born. But rather than sharing gold, frankincense and myrrh, French families share a galette des Rois. More specifically, nothern French families share a galette des Rois. These cakes are basically puff pastries filled with frangipane or almond cream. Southern French families typically share a gâteau des Rois – which are brioche based cakes with candied fruits. In either case, these sweets are not what the doctor ordered after a month of imbibing and gluttony, but hey – there’s always next week…
Traditionally, Epiphany is celebrated the day after Twelfth Night (12 nights after Christ was born, 12 days of Christmas) or on the first Sunday of January. In some regions of the world celebrations continue until Lent. In France, buttery, sweet galette des Rois are found throughout the month of January.
This year, I set out to do more than merely purchase a cake. I decided it was high-time I tried to bake one (despite being in the south, I opted for a northern puff pastry because I adore almond cream). I also decided it was time to learn a little bit more about the tradition and I must admit – it’s really sweet (not just literally).
My favorite part of the tradition is the family ritual that goes along with it. On the night of the celebration, the youngest child of the family goes underneath the dining table and appoints the cake pieces to family members as a grown-up divvies up the cake. Inside every cake is a little trinket or fève (fava bean, historically). Whoever gets the fève in his serving becomes King (or Queen) for the day and gets to wear the crown that comes with the galette, pick his/her Queen/King and has bragging rights for weeks to come.
This past Sunday marked the day I planned to make my galette des Rois. It also marked the day that my best french friend and her family began their return home to Australia. We took her out to dinner the night before, she slept at our house while our kids slept at hers (kid sleepeover, adult sleepover – great idea). In the morning, I woke to a teary goodbye at 8am and as the sun began to shine (a little less brightly I might add) I began to make my cake. I had already decided that I would attempt the puff pastry from scratch (though truth be told, I had two store-bought ones in the fridge for back-up). And off I went.
The pastry done from scratch is certainly time-consuming. As someone who struggles to get a pie crust just right – this was quite the personal challenge. But it was also terribly therapeutic. From grating 700 grams of frozen butter to rolling, folding, turning, waiting and repeating countless times – my arms worked hard and my heart focused on something other than the sadness of missing a dear friend.
I won’t lie – it was a lot of work and I can’t promise I will make the same pastry from scratch next year (the cake with store-bought pastry is easy-peasy). But in the end, the result was worth it. Not just because the cake turned out beautifully (and actually puffed), but because we, as a family, had such a lovely time starting a new tradition.
Sunday night, after dinner and before we jumped into bed for the first day of 2013 school… We sat around the table and cut into my first homemade attempt. Ozzie enthusiastically climbed under the table and shouted with authority… “Talia, Mommy, Ozzie and Daddy. That’s the order Mum”. And I dutifully cut and distributed the cake for us to devour.
Within seconds, the kids started to tear into their pieces of cake and Ozzie quickly uncovered the trinket. He declared me his Queen and then proudly adorned his paper crown. He tackled the rest of his cake with thrilled contentment. Talia, didn’t seem to mind that her brother won this year. She was too busy inhaling the buttery crust. Daddy ate his fair-share as well. And me?…well I secretly reveled in the beauty and deliciousness of the cake and my happy full-bellied family on a Sunday night before bed.
Galette des Rois (serves up to 8):
17 2/3 ounces/500 grams All-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen (if you want to do it from scratch let me know and I will send you the recipe I used along with well-wishes)!
For the Almond Cream:
9 tbsp/125 grams Unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp/125 grams Sugar
1 cup plus 1 tbsp/110 grams Almond meal (I ground almonds I roasted at 300ºF/150ºC for 10-15 minutes. The texture isn’t as fine – but I prefer the flavor to almond meal)
2 tbsp/20 grams Finely ground hazelnuts
1 tbsp/8 grams Corn starch
Sea salt, a three-finger pinch
2 Large eggs
1 drop of Almond extract
1 tbsp Liquor (Grand Marnier, Cognac, you choose)
Egg-wash and Glaze:
1 Egg yolk
t tbsp Milk
1 tbsp Confectioner’s sugar
1 tbsp Boiling hot water
– 1 Porcelain trinket or dried bean (I had neither, so I improvised with a shell we found in Indonesia a few years back).
– 2 Paper crowns (thank you Grandma Kate for the Christmas crackers, they came in perfectly handy)!
For the Almond Cream. In a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. In a bowl, combine the sugar, almonds, hazelnuts, corn starch, and salt. Stir with a whisk to remove any lumps. Add to the creamed butter and mix until smooth. Add the almond extract, liquor, and then the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or overnight.
For the Puff Pastry. Divide the puff pastry into 2 roughly equal pieces and roll each one out to form a circle a little larger than 30 cm (12 inches) in diameter. Use a sharp knife and a plate (or pot lid) to cut a neat 30-cm (12-inch) circle out of one and a slightly larger one (about 32 cm) with the other.
Assemble the Galette. Place the smaller of the two circles on a piece of parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk with the milk until smooth. Using a pastry brush, brush the outer rim of the dough lightly with the egg-wash by a width of about 2.5 cm (1 inch). Make sure not to wet the actual edge of the dough because egg on the side will hurt the rise.
Spoon the almond cream into the center and spread it out inside the egg-wash ring with a spatula.
Place your porcelain, fava bean, or improvised trinket of your choice in the center filling. Make sure it is closer to an edge (and not the center) to make dividing the cake easier later on. Press it down gently to bury it. Transfer the second round of dough on top of the first, smooth it out gently over the almond cream to remove air pockets and then press it down all around the sides to seal. If the top overhangs the bottom piece of cough in any spots – carefully trim it with a sharp knife.
Score the Galette. Using the dull side of a knife, carefully draw a pattern into the top of your galette. I opted for a simple sun pattern of “C/S-shaped lines that spiraled out from the center. Once I drew the original line – I just mimicked it all around the cake until I completed a full circle. Make sure you use just enough pressure to score the dough – don’t pierce it. I then used the back of the blade to push into the galette where each line ended to create a flowered effect. Have fun and be creative.
Brush the top of the galette lightly with the egg-wash. Again, make sure the egg-wash doesn’t drip over the edges or it will seal the layers of the puff pastry effectively preventing the rise. Let it rest a minute then brush it lightly again with the egg-wash. Using your knife, pierce 5 holes in the top dough (one in the center and four around the sides). This will help ensure an even rise.
Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and freeze for an hour or more (overnight is fine too).
Bake the galette. Take the galette out of the freezer and preheat your oven to 360°F/180°C. Insert the galette in the middle of the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until puffy and golden brown. In the final minutes of baking, combine the tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar with a tablespoon boiling water. When the galette is done, quickly brush a layer of syrup across the entire top of the galette and then return it to the oven for just one minute. This helps ensure a sparkly shiny finish.
Cool on a wire rack. We ate ours about 30 minutes after it came out of the oven and I thought it was just about perfect. You can also consume at room temperature or cool completely and reheat it slightly before serving.