A Galette des Rois and a Kings’ Cake

Traditionally a religious celebration commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, Epiphany Day is thoroughly enjoyed in France beyond the official January 6th and beyond religious meaning, too.
All over the country, bakeries sell the galette des rois (Kings’ Cake) in different versions depending on the French regions.
Americans are more familiar with another Kings’ Cake, a Louisiana specialty.

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Unlike the French who celebrate the end of the Christmas season with the Epiphany, the people of Louisiana celebrate the beginning of Lent with the famous New Orleans Carnival mid February. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During the Carnival, thousands of locals and out of state visitors savor the Kings’ Cake.

The galette des rois I know best, however, is made of puff pastry filled with almond paste.

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Despite the diversity of the cakes, the tradition of hiding a small plastic or porcelain trinket inside the dough is the same. In France, family and friends gather pour tirer les rois or to draw the kings.

Traditionally the youngest person in the room hides under the table and decides who gets which slice of the cake. Then whoever finds the trinket is crowned king or queen and can pick his queen or her king. The following year this is the turn of the king or queen to host the party.
In the old days a dry bean or fève in French was hidden inside the cake. One said that cheap people swallowed the bean so they wouldn’t have to host the event the following year. And this is how tiny porcelain trinkets replaced the traditional beans. Who knowns? In any case, the trinket is still called fève.
When I was growing up, the fève had some kind of Christian connotation: a manger, a lamb, a star, a baby Jesus, an angel, or still a shepherd.
Nowadays the selection is more eclectic which explains why a museum in Blain, on the French Atlantic coast, and another one in Ronel, in the Midi- Pyrénées region, display them.

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I love anything with almonds and almond paste, so I like the galette des rois very much. Yet more than the cake, this tradition reminds me that the French love the association of traditions, food, family, and friends.
I also enjoy sharing the traditions of my native country. One of my very first children’s stories happened to be about the galette des rois. Like Max, the protagonist, I was tempted more than once to cheat and steal the fève to be queen for a day.

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Pelican Publishing Company, based in Louisiana, has published several children’s books around the Kings’ Cake and the New Orleans Carnival.
I like their most recent picture book (2008) Timothy Hubble and the King Cake Party written by Anita Prieto and illustrated by Virginia Howard.
Timothy has just moved to New Orleans and worries about this strange Kings’ cake “with a baby baked inside” that his new friend describes to him. Of course, things will turn around in a good way for him.
However, his initial reaction reminds me of the first time I introduced the French tradition to a California teacher.

This teacher taught at my oldest daughter’s preschool and she wanted her students to learn about their classmates’ cultural heritage. Parents were invited to share traditions from their native country. The teacher didn’t know about Epiphany Day, so she was happy for my participation. Until I told her that I would hide a small trinket inside the galette des rois.
“No, no, no”, she said. “You can’t do that. Imagine if one of the children swallowed this small thing.”
“Oh, it won’t happen,” I said. “I ate many Kings’ Cakes and I never saw anyone who swallowed it.”
“No,” she insisted. “Besides, some kids could be allergic to almonds. Can you bake another cake?”
I thought that the teacher overreacted. Yet I could only obey. So I came to school with a homemade pear cake. It had nothing to do with the galette des rois and no trinket was hidden inside, but we were safe. I explained the tradition to the children.
“Where is the small thing?” asked a little girl, digging with her plastic fork through her slice of cake.
Patiently the teacher explained that an object inside the cake would be too dangerous for children. The little girl nodded and asked if she could have more cake.
Years later I purchased my first store-bought galette des rois.
When I opened the box I saw a note taped inside the cover. A warning about the trinket/fève tucked inside the cake and the fact that it was baked with almonds was printed in bold. A description of the tradition followed in regular print.
I wasn’t surprised to find such a note and in retrospect agreed that the teacher had two valid points.
You see, after years in the States, what once shocked me has lost its strangeness.
Speaking of cake, can I ask you why the Americans say: “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too?”

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Because I think that I have in fact the best of both worlds.

 

Comments

  1. I think this is an awesome tradition to bring across the generations! such a great idea and fun too 🙂 made me chuckle that there are those who would swallow the bean, cause it creates a mystery game lol 🙂

    • I like this tradition very much too, Andy. This year, for the first time ever, my kids are not home for the galette des rois. They called and they said they searched for one in local bakeries. I thought it was sweet. So tonight it’s only my husband and me. I suspect we will be both King and Queen!

  2. I always bake a brioche in form if a crown, it’s traditionain in my native part of France. I bring two to school, my oldest pupils know everything about it now and are expecting cake after the xmas holidays!

    • I never ate another galette des rois but the one with almond paste. A brioche from the south west of France sounds yummy, and your pupils are lucky to get to eat some. Enjoy the celebration! A plus tard, Pomdepin.

  3. Evelyne, that was fascinating. Epiphany Day (celebrations or food) is something i’ve never experienced. Enjoy your festivities. Hugs. 😀

    • We are pretty good at anything with food in France! That’s why I like Thanksgiving here. The association of food and friends/family is always nice. The recipe is actually simple. I always use the one I posted above. For someone like you who like recipes, you could easily make your own. Always nice to see you here, Teagan.

  4. “King for a Day” was a great story of yours, IMHO. 🙂
    Cricket Magazine should reprint their 2009 issue: http://www.cricketmag.com/SDR-0901-SPIDER-January-2009
    –joh

    • Thank you, merci, for the link. I would also love to see the story reprinted. Too bad that Pelican Publishing had already signed a book when I wrote this story. It would have made a lovely picture book too.

  5. Loved reading this. I always learn so much from your posts! So in return, I’ll share this with you: “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” means literally that you can have your cake (on a plate), but once you eat it, it’s gone–so you EITHER can “have” it OR you can “eat” it, but not both. Figuratively, it refers to someone wanting (and not being able to have) two diametrically opposed things, or in other words, you can’t have it both ways–whatever “it” happens to be.

    By the way, I bought (and read) Chronicles from Chateau Moines and really enjoyed it. The characters are all so well developed, and the plot so well-constructed, that after the first few chapters (once I got to know everyone and their stakes in the story) I read the rest of the book all the way through without putting it down. And then I was sorry to see the story end!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Melinda. I always enjoy the differences between languages, especially when it comes to idioms. So I appreciate your input about this infamous “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” And I thank you for your kind words about my novel. I truly appreciate your support and your comments about it. If you have the time and feel that my book would be a good choice for a young reader, you can always post a review either on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Goodreads where my book is listed. Again, thank you so much for visiting my blog and reading my words.

  6. I think it would be so fun to find a surprise in a cake. What a wonderful tradition. People are so overly cautious these days. I wonder how we all survived? I wonder how my children survived – I didn’t coddle and make their world too safe.
    We celebrate the Epiphany – the 12th day of Christmas. The tree is kept up until then. We used to have a hunt with one clue leading to the next with a surprise for all at the end.
    Thanks for sharing the Timothy Hubble book. I’ll see if I can get it from the library. I like to share books about all sorts of holidays.

    • For the first time this year, none of our children were with us to eat the galette des rois. And they missed it! So I’m happy that the traditions of my childhood are also part of my kids’ lives. I’ve learned something with your comment, Claire. I love the idea of a treasure hunt on the 12th day of Christmas. Pelican Publishing Company is an interesting place to find books about Cajun celebrations. You would like them to add titles to your holiday collection. See you, Claire.

  7. Bonne fête!

  8. je suis malade pour l’instant, mais ce WE, galette des rois comme tu aimes faite maison bien sûr ! Tu viens prendre le café et goûter ? 😉

  9. Ah, now that I’m in Paris, I have to try it!

  10. I enjoy reading about cultural differences and the traditions that keep them alive. You share these stories do well as you weave parts of your personal journey into them. The teacher was overreacting, but that’s our world. As for the expression, I didn’t think it was an Americsn thing…hmm.

    Tomorrow, my wife celebrates Orthodox Christmas. I wasn’t raised in the church, but my father’s family was Orthodox so I grew up around those traditions. The fabric of our culture is woven from many lands, that’s what I like about America

    • I love stories as much as food shared with friends and family. So when I can mix them together, I’m happy. Do you mean that the expression can be British too? I learned it living in the States but I should ask my British friends about it. I agree with you that America is a wonderful place of acceptance. I’m really glad that my children grew in a country that let every kid share his or her heritage. It certainly opened their eyes and hearts to other cultures and beliefs. Happy celebration of Chrismas to your wife and family then.

  11. cardamone5 says:

    Lovely, and informative, Evelyne, as always. I think we Americans overreact, as evidenced in your story. Once the kids knew there might have been a trinket inside, they never would have swallowed it. Instead, ever bite would have been searched for the treasure, more thoroughly than a new parent would have mashed food for a baby just starting solids. Oh well, you adapted, as you always do, and introduced us to a nice tradition. Thank you.

    Love,
    Elizabeth

    • I agree with you, Elizabeth, that we are a little too paranoid here when it comes to food and kids. And yet as a teacher I can understand the reluctance. The little thing inside is the fun part, though, so when my kids were little I always made sure they ate slowly and they did, so focused to find the trinket. Always nice to see you, Elizabeth.

  12. This was fun. I make two Kings’ Cakes each year. And yes, a baby Jesus is in each one. My parents are from Louisiana so I keep the tradition going.

    • Oh this is cool, Juliette. Do you have a good recipe to share one day? I’d love to make the Louisiana Kings’ Cake from scratch one day. Is it always a baby Jesus inside? In the French galette, the variety of trinkets is huge!

  13. Great idea for celebrating, nothing better then passing on traditions. Happy New Year!

    • As parents we don’t always know when we pass on, until our kids grow up and remember of the celebrations of their chidlhood. My kids weren’t home today and asked about the galette. One of my daughters searched for one where she studies and was disappointed when she could not. I was sad for her but glad too that she had remembered. See you soon, Mary.

  14. Behind the Story says:

    I, too, love anything with almond paste. Although we don’t celebrate the Epiphany in the United States, it’s always part of the Jan. 5 liturgy in the Catholic Church. I’ve always liked the international aspect of the day with the three kings representing the rest of the world.

    • Almond paste can be an addiction for me! A friend of mine posted a comment on my Facebook to tell me that The Three Kings’ Day is the day people offer gifts to each other in Latin America. So like you, Nicki, I enjoy learning how a same day can be celebrated in many different ways.

  15. Sounds like a cherished tradition Evelyne and I love the way you contrast it with the New Orleans version. It’s wonderful that you share these feasts with us, with your unique perspective.

    • It’s a cherished tradition and I was interested to see the difference between the two events and cakes that take root within the same origins, yet remain distinct from each other. Always nice to see you, Andrea.

Trackbacks

  1. […] you ever eaten a slice of galette des rois and did you find the fève? My friend, author Evelyne Holingue has a delightful post about her childhood experience in France on this special day. Click right here […]

  2. […] 3 A Galette des Rois and a Kings’ Cake […]

  3. […] It was with my French-born daughter, a baby when we left France, that I learned most American customs and taught her classmates about my French traditions. The Galette des Rois interested her preschool teacher, but she worried about the hidden token, so I ended up baking a whole different cake with nothing inside. If you want to read about this cultural but understandable clash, it’s here and also here. […]

  4. […] celebrations of Mardi Gras/Carnival. I already wrote about this celebration and its meaning, here, here and also here. In case you want to refresh your […]

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