The Best Thing About the Epiphany

Today is 6th January and around the world the feast of Epiphany is observed. In England, you might know it as Twelfth Night. If you haven’t already done so, you are only a few days away from taking down your tree (we tend to do it the weekend following New Year’s Day); you think the festivities are all over and then there is Epiphany and my favourite tart of them all: the Galette des Rois. Yay!

Epiphany itself celebrates the Three Magis’ visit to Jesus and the gifts they brought with them. Because there is usually food attached to feasts (unless it’s Lent and then conveniently you do the opposite and hopefully lose the few kilos you’d gained earlier in the year), it is a big deal in France. All the bakeries sell this wonderful pastry over the Christmas period and until the end of January so you can end up eating a lot of them. There is even a whole ritual centred around the eating of the cake called ‘tirer les rois’ i.e. to draw the kings. Wikipedia does a very good job of explaining what it’s all about with examples of how different countries celebrate the Feast, including the French version the King Cake. If you are feeling brave, you can even check out the French page but I will do my utmost to explain it clearly.

The Galette des Rois can take many guises but in France the two main types are brioche or puff pastry cake with a rich filling. The type of filling changes depending on which part of France you are in. The one I am most familiar with is an almond cream called frangipane but you can have chocolate and pears and a number of other choices aside. The most important thing is that inside the cake is hidden a little trinket. In the olden days it used to be a bean, which is why it is still called la fève despite having been replaced by a little plastic or porcelain trinket (in England, I believe a penny was used). Each year, depending on which bakery chain you go to, you might have one of a set of collectables e.g. cartoon figurines, animals, musical instruments and any number of other random themes. The galette is usually sold with a gold paper crown.

Galette des Rois
Galette des Rois (Image via Wikipedia)

I remember the ritual to draw the king/queen mostly from my childhood. It used to go like this:

  • You would buy your Galette des Rois from the baker and put it in the oven in the special bag it had come in for 20 minutes until warmed up, not forgetting to remove the crown from the bag first!
  • You would then cut the cake into slices. If you happened upon the trinket whilst cutting, you would make an effort to try and hide it again inside so no one could tell which slice it was in.
  • To ensure that the trinket was given randomly, you would ask the youngest person in the room to hide their eyes and name the recipient of each slice. Usually they would go under the table to do this.
  • The person who found the trinket, usually nearly breaking their teeth on it, became the king or queen for the day and got to wear the crown and keep the figurine.
  • It was always a bit of an emotional gamble because occasionally the baker would forget to put a trinket in and then I would cry on the inside.

I used to collect the trinkets when I was younger. Of course it has a proper name: la favophilie or fabophilie! I kept mine in a little cardboard house which is now gathering dust at my parents’ house. Come to think of it, I would quite like to get it back so I can use the trinkets to put in my own galettes in future years.

I will be making a Galette des Rois tomorrow but because I love it so much I already made one a couple of weeks ago when we had people over for dinner, which might go a long way to explain why the Stollen tasting failed to take off until this week… Confusingly the recipe is very similar to a Pithiviers so I use Michel Roux’ Pithiviers recipe as found in his Pastry book, which I cannot recommend high enough, it is my favourite pastry book and my favourite tart.

I’ve got to confess, mine never looks like the pictures or the shop-bought ones because I don’t make my own puff pastry. I find it a bit daunting; not only does it look complicated but the amount of butter that goes in… I find it easier not to know exactly how much fat I’m ingesting thank you very much. I did make Michel Roux’ rough puff pastry once and it worked a treat but I find myself time and time again using the ready-made ones. So what, the end result is rectangular-shaped, which may not be as attractive as the flower-shaped ones but it tastes just as good so I let it pass.

The filling will be 250g almond cream flavoured with dark rum and 50g crème pâtissière (a sort of vanilla custard). It is delicious just like this but I like to add halved black cherries (fresh or from a tin) for added richness.