Ga-Lette Them Eat Cake!

Having my wife on all fours underneath the table with her eyes closed while I wield a large knife reciting French from the kitchen would normally seem un peu bizarre. But if you’re in France this time of year it surprisingly becomes très normal, because this is no ordinary, post-Christmas-blues season — this is the season of the Galette des rois.

It seems there isn’t a single bakery that hasn’t filled its display window with these round “Kings’ Cakes”, and you can always identify one in its natural habitat by its ornately carved top and king’s crown nearby. The tradition goes as follows: during the month of January families everywhere buy this confection made of buttery, flaky, multilayered pastry crust traditionally housing a layer of almond and pastry cream. There’s also a real star ingredient that sets it apart from all others: each cake has baked inside it a small porcelain or plastic trinket. In the old days it was une fève (a bean), but today any small doo-dad seems to work; in our bakery they were using tiny figurines from the Smurfs, or as the French awesomely call them, Les Schtroumpfs. (If you can ever coax a Frenchie into pronouncing that word I highly recommend it.) Whoever finds this little prize in their slice becomes king or queen for the day, and gets to then choose a member of the opposite sex to complete the royal couple.

Well I want to be king as much as the next guy, so Charlotte ordered ours a week ahead of time at the boulangerie. When the day arrived we showed up like proud parents picking up our kid from soccer practice. There’s a little bit more fanfare than usual when buying a galette: it comes in a custom bag with handles and a complimentary cardboard king’s crown which the winner gets to wear later on.

I’d figured I had the tradition fully understood by the time we got back home, but as I started to cut into it Charlotte yelled “Wait!” and hit the deck. She then crawled under the table explaining the process of eating a galette in the true fashion. First, the youngest in the room must hide under the table with their eyes covered. Then the server of the cake (me) points towards each slice while asking aloud “C’est pour qui?” (Who is it for?), to which the youngest answers as he/she wishes. Frankly I’d never christened a pastry with so much theater, but after tasting this thing I can’t say it was undeserved. Basically take any croissant or pain au chocolat you’ve ever had and multiply it by several layers of crispy flakiness.

Sadly enough, we managed to get the only galette in the long history of France missing the prize inside. Charlotte was a bit disappointed that my first experience lacked its Smurfy crescendo at the end but honestly I was in it for other, more buttery reasons from the start. We plan on trying our luck with another one next week, this time with an apple filling.

I’ve already cleared my schedule.

12 comments

  • Oh I have such fond memories of this holiday. I remember one particular year while I was still living in France. I was about 5 or 6 yrs old and at school. Each table filled with students would have 1 cake and I received the piece of cake with the prize. I was so excited. It’s the little things, it’s it? (The other thing I really miss are real chocolate eclairs. These things they have in the states with the white goo on the inside are just plain wrong). Here’s hoping you get the prize on your next cake:).

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Sophia! As for the eclair thing my French wife agrees with you big time, after a year in New York she was disappointed that none of them had traditional chocolate inside. Wonderful pictures on your blog; I’d love to get my hands on a professional camera one of these days!

  • oh, corey, this post made my sweet tooth vibrate. i luv your posts. i look forward to them.

  • While Paris has its long-held reputation as one of the must-see cities of the world, your writing makes that claim even much more compelling. Thanks for the virtual tour and the history of “les galettes”. We French Canadians use the term, but for any and all cookies, not just the flakey variety :)

    • Thanks for the kind words. All cookies are galettes there? Interesting. Actually just last night I watched a travel show on Québec and now I really want to visit and compare the culture/language to that of Paris. Plus they serve some kind of dish that’s a pile of french fries and cheese with various meats and sauces on top of it – that certainly deserves further investigation.

  • Corey,

    Les Québecois call that dish Poutine. And while Québec will have its varieties, good and bad, depending on the venues, Poutine is always best when made at home. It’s basically french fries with fresh cheese curds, and thick beef or chicken gravy poured on top. It’s not the best of foods, unless you’re on a gain-weight program :)

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