The King’s Cake

Since January 2017, France-Amérique explores each month the history and the traditions behind a famous French pastry or candy. On the first Sunday of January, France celebrates the Epiphany by sharing a Galette des Rois — a King’s Cake.

There are countless stories, legends, mysteries and unexpected anecdotes surrounding this emblematic French cake, an irresistible, sweet delight open to a whole host of interpretations! In central and northern France above the Loire — a formerly royal river whose banks are still home to many remarkable châteaux — the Galette de Rois (King’s Cake) is made with puff pastry and enjoyed plain or filled. In southern France, the Occitan lands, this delicacy takes the form of a brioche couronne known as a “Couronne de Provence”, and is served with or without crystalized fruit, and occasionally pepped up with orange blossom and dried fruit. Traditionally eaten in the middle of winter, this French specialty symbolizes the religious Feast of the Epiphany. This festival commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — who came from the East to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. So the story goes, they were guided by the star of Bethlehem that shone in the night sky to herald the birth of the Son of God. “Epiphany” is actually taken from the ancient Greek word for “reveal”. This celebration almost became the festival of the sans-culottes during the French Revolution, and the cake was nearly renamed the “Galette de l’Egalité”.

Christians did not choose January 6 as the day to commemorate the Epiphany by chance. This date actually corresponds to the celebration of the winter solstice, which symbolizes the rebirth of nature. This festival was in fact already popular in Ancient Rome, under the name Saturnalia. On this day, slaves lucky enough to find a charm in the sun-shaped cake were named kings for the duration of these joyous festivities. Ever since the Middle Ages, it has been customary for the youngest person around the table (supposedly the most innocent) to hide under the table and choose who receives each slice of cake. Whoever finds the charm in their slice becomes royalty for the day, wears a crown, and can choose their king or queen. However, there have been changes over the years. It was once traditional to reserve a slice for “the Virgin” or “for God” in case a poor person should pass by. And the Vatican decided in the 1960s that the Epiphany would instead be commemorated on the first Sunday of January every year.

But there has always been some form of charm in this iconic cake, a symbol of joy, contentment and luck. The original legume traditionally used was replaced with a porcelain figurine, before the mass introduction of plastic materials. According to a more contemporary legend, the very first charm was a ring worn by the heroine in Charles Perrault’s fairytale Donkeyskin. The piece of jewelry fell into the mixture of a cake she was making for a prince, showing that love and delicious desserts make the perfect match! Another tale recounts that when the Florence-born Queen of France, Marie de’ Medici, left her native Italy, one of her suitors — the Count Frangipani — tried to prove his love for her by offering her a recipe for a  crème patissière. This delicacy was made using sugar, milk, eggs, butter and flour, all mixed with an almond cream — a nut symbolizing a rare and precious object — and is supposedly where we get the word “frangipane”, although this theory is countered by a number of other succulent hypotheses… The modern Galette des Rois is filled with this preparation, although not entirely. Some prefer to only put almond cream in their recipe, judging it to be a nobler ingredient. And as 70% of the world’s almond production comes from California, I like to think our national Galette des Rois contains a little slice of America.

Article published in the January 2017 issue of France-Amérique.