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

This golden, frangipane-filled cake appears in boulangeries and pâtisseries 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!
© Ladurée

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 une 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.

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 family.

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.”

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!” 

Article published in the January 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.