January in Paris is the time of the Galette des Rois or Cake of the Kings. Their shiny, crusted faces shout from every boulangerie, patisserie and traiteur (catering) window; from the tiny family-run shops to the big name stores: Dalloyau, Pierre Hermes, LeNotre.
Celebrated for Epiphany (January 6th) and the Visitation by the Magi, it is sold all through the month of January, some boulangeries even churning them out in December. Its history goes back to Roman times (though the purpose and names have changed over the centuries according to what kings and society thought it should reflect). Since the Middle Ages, it has been known as a Twelfth Night cake.
When Louis XIV banned it for being
a pagan festival, it became La Fete du Bon Voisinage ('Neighborly Relations Day').
After the French Revolution, it became
Gateau de l'Egalite ('the Cake of Equality').
Never underestimate the people's need for cake!
I should know since cake is my downfall. Cookies can go by the wayside. Chocolate can go stale in my pantry for months (though I don't like to leave it feeling lonely that long however I can start or stop any time I wish). Ice cream can rack up extra layers of ice. But cake eerily calls my name until I have finished every last morsel. Might take me a week (leaving pieces for my partner who may never touch it again but then wonders what happened to it once it's mysteriously gone) but it never gets thrown out.
Forget willpower, cake rules.
And this cake, the Cake of the Kings, is made of puff pastry filled with a creamy interior and (frangipane) almond-paste. The ritual around this cake centers on a lucky charm hidden within its sinfully sweet interior. The youngest (child) in the family takes their place under the table and, as the cake is cut, calls out the name of the person receiving the next piece. The one who finds the charm becomes King and wears the gold paper crown sold with each cake.
Early on, the lucky charm was a bean (une feve) and the lucky King was made to buy drinks all 'round which lead to some swallowing of beans to save on funds. In later years, it became a porcelain trinket but now is most often made of plastic. Both the porcelain and even the plastic trinkets have become collector's items. I've had two Galettes already this holiday season and both cakes produced plastic Santas, which both adult and child Queens were ecstatic to find and keep.
And while I have never yet been the Lucky Queen, I feel certain that I have enough luck and royal blood (or at least attitude) to eventually be crowned. I intend to keep making my way through almond paste and puff pastry until I do.
Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen