Galette des Rois (Cake of Kings) is as much as part of Christmas in France as the freshest seafood, roast turkey or goose and bubbly. This delightful cake, eaten on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, has a long history.
Let’s start with Epiphany
Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day or the Feast of Epiphany falls on January 6th. It’s one of the oldest Christian feasts, dating back to the end of the second century. But like many Christian traditions, its origins are up for discussion.
There are several differences about Epiphany. Orthodox and eastern Christians celebrate it as the day of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the waters of the river Jordan; the catholic church and Western Christians believe it was the day when the three kings (or Magi or wise men) visited the Christ child in Bethlehem.
Various symbols signify the feast: the star that guided the wise men to Christ and their gifts: gold for a king; frankincense for worship, and bitter myrrh used as anointing oil.
The French Galette des Rois
The tradition of the galette des rois, or King Cake has existed in France since the 14th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was plenty of protest against this custom that was deemed to be pagan. Then the French accepted that and from the 17th century to the second decade of the 1900s, King Cakes became the norm, found in every decent pâtisserie.
In January the bakeries and pâtisseries are filled with Galette des Rois. It’s a universal custom with more than 32 million galettes des rois eaten every year in France.
This being France, of course different regions bake different cake styles. In the north it’s a flat puff pastry cake filled with frangipane; in the south galettes are brioche rings decorated with glace fruit.
What’s inside is the whole point
Tradition dictates that the galette holds a fève, a dried bean though that’s been modified.
Around 1870 different figurines made of porcelain replaced the beans. Today you might find them made of plastic and in all kinds of different shapes from baby Jesus to a favorite figure or even a shoe.
Chic Galettes (This is France)
The humble galette des rois has even become something of a fashion symbol. It started in 1991 when Christian Lacroix designed seven hearts for the famous Parisian patissier Gaston Lenôtre (1920-2009). It set the trend with top designers like Yves St Laurent and Sonia Rykiel bringing their talents to bear on the tiny trinkets.
The top Parisian names make a different one each year; the 2021 Ladurée cake contains hazelnut almond cream and milk chocolate chunks. It will satisfy 6 people and costs a whopping €45 but it will make your reputation as a true French foodie (or a bit of a snob).
The Galette des Rois Ceremony
The ceremony is simple. The youngest child hides under the table and calls out the names of whoever is to get the next piece of cake, making the selection of the winner completely random. Whoever finds the bean(or whatever item is baked into the cake) becomes king or queen for the day, puts on a paper hat and can choose their partner.
Some households follow the tradition that the person getting the bean becomes king or queen for the whole day, which is a far better deal.
Fun Facts about the Galette des Rois
During the French Revolution the name was changed to “Gâteau de l’égalité”. Quite right and proper. The word ‘King’ was forbidden and anyway who would want it? those were the days when kings and queens had their heads chopped off.
The French President has a galette des rois but isn’t allowed to “draw the king” on Epiphany. Entirely inappropriate for a King to be crowned in the President’s Elysée Palace! So an enormous traditional galette with no figurine or paper crows arrives for the President and his guests.
More about Christmas and Food
How the French celebrate Christmas – from Dec 6th, the Feast of St Nicolas to Jan 6th, Epiphany.
French Christmas food – a real grande bouffe!
And if you’re interested in food…
The intriguing story of the Food of France