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King Cake: A French Tradition Little Known in the U.S.

This golden, frangipane-filled cake appears in boulangeries and patisseries at the end of December. King cake or la galette des rois, is traditionally eaten with the family on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day, but many enjoy it from December 31 and throughout the whole month of January!

Along with Yule logs and Easter eggs, this is another unmissable fixture in the French culinary calendar. Some 40 million cakes were eaten in France in 2018! But this tradition has struggled to find a following abroad. The French bakery Pitchoun, which has two stores in Los Angeles, sold 300 cakes last January. “That isn’t very much compared with a local bakery in France, which can sell up to 1,500,” says the manager Fabienne Souliès. “French people come to buy their cakes every year, but many Americans are unaware of the tradition.” In New York and Washington D.C., the employees working for the Maison Kayser chain of premium bakeries are specifically trained for this season, and teach surprised customers about the Epiphany ritual.

The traditional cake, nicknamed the Parisienne, is made using puff pastry and is filled with frangipane — a blend of almond cream and pastry cream. Some bakeries offer different versions such as frangipane-chocolate, pear-chocolate, lemon and candied chestnuts, hazelnuts, apple, and Mirabelle plums. Others also sell king cakes shaped like crowns, which is a Southern French specialty made with hazelnuts and candied fruit. The Basque people successfully exported the brioche dessert to the New World in the 18th century, and today it is enjoyed during Carnival season in Louisiana and the other states in the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans, king cake is traditionally sprinkled with sugar dyed in the Mardi Gras colors of gold (power), green (faith), and purple (justice).

From baby Jesus to Johnny Hallyday

Whether with brioche or puff pastry, king cake always contains a figurine or a fève (literally, “bean”). In Ancient Rome, people would share a cake shaped like the sun to celebrate the winter solstice. Slaves lucky enough to find a dried bean in their slice became kings for the day. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan cake was associated with the religious feast day of Epiphany. The dessert was used to commemorate the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem, and the bean was replaced by a terra cotta or ceramic figurine of the baby Jesus.

Gateau-des-rois-Jean-Baptiste-Greuze-galette-epiphanie

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Epiphany, 1774. © Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole. Photography by Frédéric Jaulmes.

However, part of the pagan tradition has persisted. The person who finds the figurine becomes king or queen for the day, wears a paper crown, and chooses a king or queen to assist them. But the fève has lost most of its religious significance. In Louisiana the figurines are made of pink plastic and depict the baby Jesus, while in France they reflect current affairs and trends. During World War I, the figurines were made with Limoges porcelain and shaped like pointed helmets to poke fun at the Germans. The figurines in 2019 pay homage to the French soccer team (who won the World Cup in July 2018), singer Johnny Hallyday (who passed away in December 2017), and the Simpsons.

French figurines in the United States

Most figurines are now mass-produced in China and Vietnam. But one company, Colas, is resisting this relocation. Based in Clamecy in the Nièvre département, it is one of the last pottery works that still makes its figurines by hand. The recent models include sailing knots, French presidents, and Japanese manga characters. More than 500,000 figurines will be produced this year, some of which will be sent to the United States. The family-run business supplies Maison Kayser in New York and Washington D.C., Mademoiselle Colette in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and the Normandie bakery in Los Angeles.

“The fève is part of French tradition,” says Fabienne Souliès. “Some customers order a cake with four figurines inside — one for each of their grandchildren — and come back every year to continue their collection.” Far from being a simple trinket, the figurines actually help bakeries to sell more and are highly sought-after by the “fabophiles” who collect them. These enthusiasts meet up every year for an international fair held in Paris. Attendees buy, sell, and swap rare and vintage models such as a dog smoking a pipe made in the early 20th century. The figurines produced by a company called Pagis stopped being made in the late 1990s and are among the most popular. According to the fair’s organizer, Thierry Storme, these editions are the “Rolls Royce of contemporary king cake figurines.”

Feves-galette-des-rois-epiphanie-king-cake-User:Varaine

A collection of terracotta fèves. © Varaine/Wikimedia Commons

A collector’s fève has to be made using artisanal methods and have been used in a cake. Industrial figurines and those bought new by the dozen are worthless. Fabophiles are also fond of specially designed figurines. Those created by Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, and Inès de la Fressange for leading Parisian caterers are highly desirable, as are those bearing the name of a local bakery. A collector’s figurine can go for between 50 cents and 3 euros, according to Thierry Storme. “But purists can pay up to 300 euros if they find a particularly rare one in excellent condition!”

King Cake vs. the FDA

There are a number of fabophiles in Japan, but most collectors are French. Outside of Francophone and Francophile circles, few are aware of the Epiphany ritual in the United States. The Americans were initially surprised by the French cake. Some people even broke a tooth on the figurine! Others almost choked, and official complaints were lodged. Manufacturers imposed official dimensions of the figurines — between 19 and 29 millimeters — to avoid accidents. But the Food & Drug Administration was inflexible, stating that any foodstuff designed for consumption must not contain inedible parts. As a result, Kinder Surprise eggs were banned in the United States for more than 20 years. The decision was lifted in January 2018, and the chocolates and little toys are now sold in two separate packages.

Bakers and pâtissiers have adopted a similar strategy. “For safety reasons,” Maison Kayser has decided to sell king cakes without figurines: the trinkets are given separately. Pitchoun in Los Angeles has followed suit. Customers who want a cake “like the ones in France” have to order theirs in advance and sign a responsibility waiver. Bakeries in the French chain Paul in Boston and the Washington D.C. area are the only stores that continue to hide the fèves in their cakes, although they also provide each buyer with an information leaflet.

The FDA’s prudence raises smiles at the Colas pottery works in Clamecy, and workers defend their tradition. “A king cake without a figurine is not a king cake. It’s a frangipane pie and it’s called a pithiviers!”

  • How fabulous. I love your version of the King Cake. I am certainly acquainted with the New Orleans Marci Gras celebration cake. However, your version of the King Cake is magnificent. The figurines are so special. Ahhhh, my “Bucket List”!

  • I had heard of a wreath made from sweet bread for Kings day, but not this… This recipe sounds delicious! And what a lovely tradition with the figurine… Thank you for sharing.

  • I lived in France for 5 years, with the 1st four coming between the ages of 7 and 11. I have very fond memories of “la Galette,” including eating slices very gingerly, so as not to crack a tooth chomping down on “la feve.” Thank you for the article–it brought me back to thinking of some wonderful times.

  • I left France in 1965 to live here in Australia; only my Francophone friends here know about “la galette des rois”… Not easy to find of course!

  • In Québec, the tradition was a bit different. Mom would just make a regular cake. You would have two different kinds of beans in the cake, one for the King and the other one for the Queen. You would just hope that each one would be found by a boy and a girl. We used to celebrate it as kids but I don’t know if people still celebrate it.

  • In Louisiana, it is “officially” from Kings Day (Epiphany, January 6) to Mardi Gras (the day before Ash Wednesday). But you can now purchase year-round. Many this year (2020) are without the green color and just purple & gold (LSU colors).

  • Love them. Have eaten King Cake all of my life in New Orleans. Our family starts on Kings Day, January 6th, and continues through Mardi Gras Day. Always fun!

  • I am 69. When I was in 7th and 8th grade, during the Carnival season, I went to King Cake parties every weekend. These were mixed parties (boys and girls). There was a record player, popular 45 rpm records, lots of dancing. At a certain point during the party, king cake was served, everyone taking a piece. Whoever had the baby in their piece had to have the next party. It is a wonderful memory and a delightful way to be introduced to the joys of dancing and interacting with the boys!

  • King cakes abound in my community along the Alabama gulf coast during carnival season. I adore the infinite varieties and the swell favors. Happy Mardi Gras!

  • We love traditional king cake in Louisiana. Today is the start of Mardi Gras season; January 6th. The Krewe of Joan of Arc marches tonight through the streets of the old French Quarter. After we all share a king cake!

  • Ma tante, qui n’était vraiment pas quelqu’un de gentil, mettait une deuxième fève dans la galette pour que le deuxième qui trouve la 2nd fève se casse une dent. Je haïssais cette personne et je me suis cassée une dent.

  • J’ai passé mon enfance dans le Val de Loire où la galette des rois était simplement faite de délicieuse pâte feuilletée non fourrée. Comment se fait-il qu’aux USA, on ne mentionne jamais cette variété qui met en valeur cette simple et divine pâte au beurre frais et que je recherche ici en vain chaque année dans la région de San Francisco ? C’est pourtant la meilleure à mon avis.

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