As the New Year’s calendar flips to January, the enticing aroma of French butter wafts out of bakeries across France, signalling the arrival of a delightful tradition. As the French Christmas cake, “Bûche de Noel”, vanishes from the shelves, it is swiftly replaced by a new culinary delight – the Galette des Rois, or the “Cake of the Kings,” a cherished part of the country’s Epiphany celebrations.
Nestled within the cake is a small charm known as the fève. Finding this hidden treasure amidst the delicious folds of the pastry crowns an individual as the “king for a day“. Hooray!
History of Galette des Rois
Celebrated on January 6th, Epiphany Day in France often ushers in associations with the three wise men visiting baby Jesus in Bethlehem. However, some French historians argue that the tradition can actually be traced back to Roman times. Saturnalia was a Roman festival celebrating the winter solstice through grand feasts where even slaves could join the masters in dining. Chance games chose a “King for the day” which became a unique feature of this feast.
In the past, the person who discovered the charm inside the cake had to invite everyone present for a meal the following year. To avoid this responsibility, some participants swallowed the charm, a task made easier when it was a simple bean. In the 1870s, the chefs replaced the beans with porcelain charms when making a Galette des Rois. For this reason, the charms became associated with good luck as finding porcelain was linked to good fortune for the year ahead.
The French Revolution threatened this tradition, as references to royalty became unacceptable in the spirit of equality. Many bakers rebranded the cake as the Freedom Cake or the Equality Cake to safeguard this cherished custom. These days, the Elysee Palace receives a giant cake during Epiphany, albeit without a charm. Evidently, the President of the French Republic can never be a King!
What’s in a Cake?
Depending on the region in France, the Galette des Rois brings a different flavour and filling. The northern variant is a flaky, puff pastry teeming with frangipane – a sweet almond paste. Meanwhile, the south prefers a ring cake, a brioche-style delight embellished with candied fruits. Other variants feature hazelnut chocolate, apple, or pear fillings.
French bakeries engage in a friendly rivalry each year, competing for the best Galette des Rois title. For instance, “Dupont Avec Un Thé” bakery in Neuilly-sur-Seine, bagged this honor in December 2023, after being the runners-up the previous year. Their winning handmade artisanal galette, priced at €65, serves up to 10 people. What a contrast to the identical-sized industrial cakes available for less than €10 in large supermarket chains in Paris.
Beyond savouring the cake, traditional customs play a vital part in the Galette des Rois celebration. The cake is divided to ensure each guest gets a slice. In addition, a symbolic piece is reserved for potential guests or a person in need. This generous tradition, “tirer les rois” or “draw the kings,” echoes communal bonds and hospitable spirit.
The cake hides a fève, a small figurine made of porcelain or plastic. The lucky person who finds the fève is honoured to wear the golden paper crown that accompanies the cake.
A Galette des Rois party at home is incomplete without the youngest gathering member sitting under the table and directing the distribution of the cake slices – a tradition to ensure fairness. Indeed, this ensures that everyone has an equal, suspenseful chance of discovering the fève and wearing the crown!
This year we thought we’d mix things up and try some Galettes des Rois from different places. First, we splashed out €27 for a fancy four-person cake from a Parisian pastry chef Jeffrey Cagnes. Then, we picked up a similar-sized galette, but much lighter on the pocket at just €4.90, from our local Casino supermarket. How did they stack up? Let’s find out.
On looks alone, Cagnes’s galette took the lead. With its cool pattern and perfectly round shape, it sure looked the part. But, we all know it’s what’s on the inside – or rather, the taste, that really counts!
When we dug in, Cagnes’s cake stole the show. Everyone around the table voted it as their fave, thanks to an awesome combo of almond flavour, just-right sweetness, and perfectly flaky pastry that held together like a champ on our forks. The supermarket cake from Casino acted like a dark horse, tasting pretty good right off the bat, only to leave us with a funky bitterness in our mouths. In fact, it was so off-putting that I had to have an extra portion of Cagnes’s galette just to forget it!
So, does the Cagnes’s cake taste five times better for its price tag? While it’s certainly tastier, I’m not so sure it’s fully worth the extra hit to the wallet!