On our Christmas menu we had a bûche de Noël and an apple cheesecake. Blending French and American ingredients is our family signature lifestyle.
But when the holiday season is over, when Christmas trees line the curbs and strings of lights climb up to the attic or down to the basement, I am exclusively French for the time of a cake made of puffed pastry filled with almond paste.
This cake called Galette des Rois or Kings’ Cake in English is baked throughout France in homage to the Three Magi who brought gifts to Baby Jesus, on Epiphany Day celebrated on January 6. Inside the galette des rois the baker hides a small token called a fève in French. Whoever finds the fève in his or her slice of cake becomes King or Queen.
When I lived in France I never baked a galette des rois. My mother, an excellent cook and baker, didn’t either. She always bought one galette at the bakery. In fact she always bought more than one, since the French celebrate all month long with family and friends. The custom is to take turns. Whoever is crowned king or queen invites people over for another round. I like this galette so much when I was a kid that I remember once begging my mother to keep a slice for me since I was sick on Epiphany Day.
Then I moved to the States and for many years I couldn’t find any French bakery. When I found one, they never carried the galette des rois. This is how I started to bake my own. With mixed results, to be honest with you. One year, a friend of mine gave me her recipe, promising a perfect galette. The dough expanded so much in the oven that it reminded me of the picture book Strega Nona, where the pasta gets out of control and overflows the pot, ending up in the street. I freaked out and removed the galette from the oven. It immediately deflated and was uncooked. Garbage. My friend was a first class baker. I was less than an apprentice back then.
Finally I found a great bakery owned and run by a French baker. He made the most perfect galettes des Rois. By the time I discovered his shop I had also become a much better baker. And I reconsidered baking my own galette. It was made to happen that I found it in Babar, a French children’s magazine.
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.
This year my daughter was home on Epiphany Day. Her boyfriend came as well, and I figured that baking a galette des rois would be a good way to introduce him to our French background. He loved it. And look what he found in his slice of cake!
Like any immigrant mother I’m always happy when one of my childhood’s favorites becomes my kids’ favorite too.
And when it makes a born-American person smile and asks for more.