King or Queen for a Day

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Comments

  1. I love this. I discovered he galette while living in the US. I was one of the people who volunteered to make one for extra credit in my French class. Ok it was with store bought puff pastry, raspberry jam (due to allergies) and the fève was a coffee bean 🙂
    I will write my post soon I hope, the day started out quite differently than planned, I guess that I will write about that soon too.

  2. judithworks says:

    I love, love, love Buche de Noel!!!

  3. I just finished reading ‘Bringing Up Bebe’. Have you heard of it? It’s a novel about an American woman raising her kids in France. Fascinating read! What I loved most was the french custom to have the gouter everyday. That’s what your post reminded me of!

    • Yes, I know the book, which in a funny way has been translated in French. I even saw a French TV show where the author was interviewed. It’s an engaging book with some exaggerations but a fun read. The gouter is a real thing. When I was in school (except in elementary school because it was close to my home, so the gouter was eaten at home) a gouter was always provided to the students at the end of the school day. In my middle and high schools it was a piece of baguette with a bar of dark chocolate or a pate de fruit (bar of fruit paste). We would pick our gouter before taking our bus or walking home. School ends much later in France than in the States so we also eat dinner much later. The gouter is a great way to wait until dinner time.
      The Galette des Rois can in fact be shared as an afternoon treat or gouter. You’re right.
      This year I baked it as a dessert and we ate it after our dinner. But lots of people will have it with tea or coffee sometime between lunch and dinner.
      Thank you for stopping by, Katie. Wish you well.

  4. I love to see traditions carried on and passed onto others.

    • I do too, Dan. It’s how they were passed from one group of new comers to another in the States. Which explains why we have so many different traditions and why we are usually pretty good at embracing all of them. When it involves food it’s easier of course!!!

  5. Great choice, making this over again there in the US, you keepon traditions good.
    J’en profite pour te remercier avec un blog award, comme tu fais partie des top participants à mon blog voici un petit blog awad auquel il n’y a aucune contrainte à répondre ou à participer, mais c’est une de mes manières de te remercier :

    http://pimpfdm.net/mes-blog-awards/dragon-loyalty-award-2016/

    • Thank you, Pimpf. I totally agree with the passing of customs. Je vais jeter un coup d’oeil au challenge. Je participe rarement, faute de temps le plus souvent. Mais c’est gentil en tous cas d’avoir pensé à moi. Je vous tiens au courant.

  6. A New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition as well. I learned about it at Burning Man, of all places, where the NOLA group made a large replica of the cake and the king, which was then burned. –Curt

  7. I haven’t heard of ‘galette des rois’ (and I love your persistance!), but I do know the Baba The Elephant stories, also turned into a delightful children’s programme on TV in the UK the 80s and which I used to watch with my eldest son, my British/American little boy 🙂 I relate so much to your delight in all you learnt through your French-born eldest daughter about American customs while teaching her friends and classmates about your French traditions. For us, we always have the traditional English Christmas roast turkey with trimmings, but I always make our American favourite of French Bean Casserole. Happy New Year Evelyne, from England to France wrapped up together in America 🙂

    • Thank you so much for stopping by, Sherri. Of all people, I know how you feel about traditions, learned in the new land or customs passed to other people. I like mix and match in general, and I’m glad that my life allows me to blend my own traditions to more recent acquired ones. Always discovered through my children, and especially my French-born one who was our family trail blazzer. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your own experiences as a British woman being a mother in California. Happy New Year to you and your family!

      • Thank you Evelyne…and yes, I love how we both learnt through our trail-blazzing children so much about our new life in America 🙂

  8. I loved reading about this tradition and the way it evolved as you changed countries Evelyne. I have heard of the English version, a fruit cake, I believe, baked for Twelfth Night, but it’s not something I’ve ever had. It looks wonderful.

    • Nice to see you here, Andrea. The galette des Rois is yummy but unlike many Americans I have nothing against fruit cakes. 😊
      I also enjoy passing traditions to people who don’t know them yet. See you soon.

  9. Thanks Evelyne. Fascinating culinary and social history! And, of course, you’ve whetted my appetite to try out a Galette! Regards Thom.

  10. la voilà la fameuse galette! la fève pour l’ami de ta fille, de quoi le convaincre que c’est une bonne tradition gastronomique 🙂 bises

Trackbacks

  1. […] by a coffee bean (in french fève de café). I can highly recommend that you read a bit about the Galette des Rois on Evelye Holingue’s blog, she took the tradition to the US and learnt how to make her own […]

  2. […] 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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