Epiphany: the Galette des Rois

by ACP on January 5, 2010

galette ready to serve

I ALWAYS ASSUMED that Christmas ended a minute past 11:59 on the night of December twenty-fifth. I grew up, probably like most American children, thinking that the Twelve Days of Christmas started in mid-December and built to a climax on the day we opened gifts and (not always) dragged ourselves out in the cold to go to church and sing carols. Blame the retail marketing machine with their only-so-many-shopping-days-left routine.

Despite having an ex-minister as a father and despite my years of Sunday School, I was well into adulthood before I could define Epiphany for you—unless we were discussing literature, in which case I would tell you to go study The Dubliners by James Joyce. It took my lapsed-Catholic husband and my French in-laws to provoke my “illuminating discovery” of this holiday, which marks the true end of the Christmas season on January 6.

Had I been raised Greek Orthodox, I would have known long ago to tell you that Epiphany—also known as the Theophany (Θεοφάνεια), which means “God shining forth”—is the celebration of God incarnate; that it marks Christian events from the arrival in Bethlehem of the three magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar for bonus points), on through to the baptism of Jesus and the divine manifestation of the Holy Trinity at that instant. For Greeks, Epiphany is one of the most important liturgical feasts (after Easter and Pentecost) and is a national holiday. Appropriately enough, Greek celebrations feature the cleansing symbolism of water: priests bless and distribute Epiphany water, and clergy in coastal parishes toss a cross into the sea for young men to dive after.

But since it was my French family members who brought this date to life for me . . . well, the fact is that my first knowledge of the holiday was essentially culinary. Epiphany is also the day of the “galette des rois” (or “kings’ cake” as in New Orleans); a time to eat puff pastry and frangipane and play a mystery game to see who will be crowned king (or queen) for the day.

figurines for the galette des rois

My son always looks forward to playing the game, which you win by finding the “fève” baked into the galette. Literally a fava bean (the traditional object), the fève these days can be almost any small figurine, usually made of porcelain. We’ve collected a few from bakeries over the years, so now when we make our own galettes, we either recycle these or resort to dried favas. Since the game appeals to children, I suppose it was only a matter of time before we came across figures like the Pinocchio pictured above—characters having nothing whatsoever to do with Epiphany. (We even have one or two depicting just the bakery’s logo: boo, hiss). Happily, you can still find fèves appropriate to the true meaning of the day, and bravo to my son for wanting to bake Jesus this year (although that sounds a bit diabolical, too, doesn’t it?).

To play the game, the youngest person hides under the table and calls out a name as each piece of the galette is cut, thereby distributing the slices. The person who finds the fève in his or her slice gets to wear a crown and choose a royal partner. Among adults, another tradition is that the person who wins the game bakes or buys the next galette.

the finished galette

The galette itself is puff pastry filled with frangipane, a French almond paste. I happen to love everything almond-flavored, so it’s a favorite of mine. The recipe we use is my mother-in-law’s, which I’ve adapted for U.S. measurements and oven temperatures. In the past, my husband has made the galette, but I decided to do the honors this year; I had wanted for some time to make frangipane, but never did until now. I have no idea what took me so long.

The recipe is easy, and although we celebrated this past Sunday (as many French households do), the use of store-bought puff pastry means that it will take almost no time and hardly any advance planning to make a galette for tomorrow’s holiday, should you be tempted. Of course, I recommend that you do bake one: this galette was so good that despite the decorously placed fork in the photo below, I resorted to lifting the slice up to my mouth and baring my teeth (see the bite mark?). I wasn’t the only one.

plated (and eaten!) galette

As for the crown . . . If you’re buying a galette, a couple of gold foil crowns come with your purchase; otherwise, you’re on your own. At our house, usually it’s my son who makes a crown or two out of construction paper, glue, and glitter. This year, however, he wanted nothing to do with arts and crafts, so the second youngest person (who, I might add, is in his late thirties) wielded the scissors instead. His spiky crown ended up—where else?—on my son’s head.

There is something delightful about a child finding a surprise, winning a favor and special distinction. My son, amazed to find the fève in his slice of galette for what must be the fourth year in a row, declared, “I’m always the one who gets it!” With the crown on his head, he had an air of triumph about him. I don’t know how long it will take him to figure out that we adults rig the game in his favor, or if he’ll care. More important is the ritual of being together; of celebrating one last bit of Christmas before carrying on with winter and the austere days of Lent.

And since you’re still with me, I’ll admit a personal gain that made baking my first galette worthwhile: named queen to my son’s king (forget Freud for the moment), I got to reign in glory for the rest of the evening, enjoying compliments on a successful dessert and someone else cleaning the kitchen! If you make a galette this year, it’s the least that I wish for you.

galette subject found

Galette des Rois (à la frangipane)

This recipe, passed down from my mother-in-law in France, is for a traditional galette with frangipane, made to celebrate the Christian feast day of Epiphany on January 6. I have respected her version, adapting measures and temperatures for my American kitchen and adding perhaps a stronger dose of almond extract. Those who have the time and desire to make their own puff pastry from scratch may do so, of course, but there’s no shame cutting corners with store-bought (which is what I do). Just be sure to leave enough time to thaw it according to package instructions, and the rest will go quickly. Of course, the other thing to plan for is the “fève” that will be baked into the galette. You can use a dried fava bean, or any small figurine—the only caveat being to make absolutely sure that the object you select is heatproof. If you have any doubt, leave it out and go with the bean. Finally, you’ll want to explain to guests around the table that they should take care as they enjoy the galette; the idea is not to end up with a trip to the dentist because someone bit down hard on the fève!

Yield: 1 galette (9-inches in diameter)

Ingredients:

2 sheets (17-1/4 ounce package) frozen puff pastry

1/2 cup sugar

2 egg yolks

1-1/8 cups very finely ground almonds (almond powder)

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons almond extract (optional)

1 dried fava bean or heatproof figurine, for hiding inside the galette

Small amount of milk or half-and-half, or 1 beaten egg, for glazing

Method:

Preheat the oven to 475F, and thaw puff pastry sheets according to package directions.

While pastry is thawing, make the frangipane. Vigorously whisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Continue whisking until the mixture is very light in color and fairly smooth. Add the butter and half of the almonds, and mix with a wooden spoon. Add the almond extract, if using (start with 1 teaspoon) and the rest of the ground almonds, mixing well. You will have a very dense paste. Add up to an additional 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. This will give a stronger almond flavor, but will also make mixing a bit easier. Continue until the frangipane is as smooth as possible, then set aside.

Fill the galette. Roll out one pastry sheet between layers of plastic wrap or parchment paper, or on top of a silpat (silicone mat). Do not over-roll. Line a standard (not deep-dish) 9-inch pie plate with the pastry, and prick with a fork. Spread the frangipane evenly across the dough, and push the fava bean or figurine down into the frangipane, somewhere along the perimeter of the galette (you don’t want it in the middle, as it will be harder to cut proper pieces that way).

Roll out the second sheet of pastry as you did the first. Create a vent by making a hole in the center of the sheet with a knife or very small cookie-cutter shape. You can also trace lines with the point of a sharp knife over the top of the pastry to make intricate designs (don’t cut all the way through the dough in this instance). Lay this sheet of pastry over the filled galette. Trim and crimp the edges to seal. If desired, use scraps to make additional cut-out decorations to place on top or around the edges of the galette. Glaze with the milk, half-and-half, or beaten egg.

Put the galette in the oven, and immediately turn the temperature down to 400F. Bake for 30 minutes, watching to make sure it doesn’t burn. The finished galette will be puffed and golden. Remove and let cool to room temperature for serving. Cutting with a serrated knife works best.

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January 5, 2010 at 10:05 pm

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

peter January 5, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Allison, it’s never too late to get more in touch with your Greek roots, non?

Reply

ACP January 5, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Mais oui—I mean malista! Peter, it’s good to see you in this space. Do you celebrate Epiphany? If you do (or even if you don’t), I wish you a happy day tomorrow. Thanks for the comment.

Reply

ACP January 5, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Thanks Stacy & Moonflower for the tweets. Hope you both make and enjoy the recipe.

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maria v January 6, 2010 at 3:49 am

and here’s a little extra bit of info:
galette des rois – kings – vasili – vasilias – vasilopita
it is not surprise that the two pies are connected: they appear at around about the same time, they have a similar name, and they have something hidden in them

Reply

ACP January 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

Yes, Maria, of course: the vasilopita! I was going to make one for St. Basil’s, but the time slipped away from me. Luckily we do have this tradition of the galette as well. But now, with the Christmas season finally at its close . . . maybe I should start getting serious about my new year’s resolutions to eat more salads in the new year and less cakes? Or not. Happy holiday to you. I’d love to hear about Epiphany celebrations in Chania.

Reply

watersidemom January 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

Thanks for the recipe, Allison. Sounds scrumptious! Good to see your talents up and running again. Oh when the Saints, Go marching in…

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ACP January 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm

@ watersidemom: Thanks for the compliments . . . and the serenade! Nothing like getting a little jazzy tune stuck in my head while I work in the kitchen or, as is the case today, on proofing book jackets.

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The Curious Baker January 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Galette des rois! *sigh* I couldn’t come up with gluten free puff pastry to make this, this year, so my little Epiphany man has to go homeless for a whole year! …Wait you missed the most important bit: Who was the king/queen?

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ACP January 21, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Wow, if you manage a gluten-free galette des rois, I’ll be impressed. I do very little gluten-free baking (an understatement), but I do know some people with celiac, and if you check back next week, you may find something of interest! As for the king: my son, of course; and he chose his mom as queen! :-)

Reply

raw food diet January 21, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Hey there. my son let me know about your site a couple days ago, and I absolutely love it. I’ll be back! Right on!

Reply

ACP January 21, 2010 at 5:26 pm

So glad. I hope you do indeed return. Got some great things planned. Thanks for stopping by!

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