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Epiphany: Playing hide-and-seek with your pastry
In Paris, January is the month of Galettes des Rois with crowns, trinkets, momentary royalty and gleeful eaters
Sunday morning, Michael and I walked out of our apartment on the way to the market and within three minutes I sighted my first-of-the-season galette des rois, king cake. It was at Maison Mulot, where the galettes took up every centimeter of window display space. And behind the window cases were tall racks with more galettes. Just a couple of days ago, those windows – and the windows of all of the city’s patisseries – were chockablock with fancy bûches de Noël. But so long Yule logs - out with Christmas! In with Epiphany! The pastry wheel turns.
Galettes in the window at Maison Mulot
The basic galette des rois
The galette celebrates Epiphany on January 6, the day when the Three Kings saw the baby Jesus. Although historians say that galettes were eaten by the ancient Romans as a treat uncharacteristically shared by masters and slaves together, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the church chose to commemorate the visit of the Magi with a cake. At its simplest, a Parisian galette des rois is composed of two layers of puff pastry sandwiching a filling of crème d’amandes or almond cream, think frangipane. The edges are scalloped and the top has a design etched into the egg glaze. This is still the most commonly found galette, but it almost goes without saying that the city’s top pastry chefs have all put their own spin on the tradition.
I’ll get to that. I’ll also get to a recipe (scroll down if you want it now).
The galette game
Every galette has a secret – tucked somewhere inside the galette is a prize. In early times, the prize was a dried bean, or fève. Over the centuries, the beans were replaced by all manner of trinkets, usually made of porcelain, but they’ve never stopped being called fèves. Getting the fève might be its own reward, but it’s also part of a tradition that has been passed down through generations.
When it’s time to cut the galette, the youngest person in the room is asked to crouch under the table, where he or she can’t see what’s going on. As each slice of the galette is cut, the croucher calls out the name of the person who should get that slice, a guarantee that whoever ends up with the fève has gotten it fair and square, no chance of favoritism possible. But that’s not all. Whoever gets the fève gets named king or queen. These days, when you buy a galette, it comes with a crown and yes, some crowns look as though they were filched from Burger King, and others are designed especially for or by the pastry chef. But even a crummy cardboard crown seems precious when you’ve won it.
And if you didn't take the crown, don't fret - you'll have another chance. Galettes are on sale until the end of January and if you're lucky enough to be having dinner at anyone's home this month, you can pretty much count on being served one. Before Covid shrunk our world, there'd be galette parties in offices, schools and even on the street.
The galette des rois and paper crown from Pierre Hermé
It’s not always puff pastry
The puff pastry galette is the specialty in Paris, but in the south of France, particularly in Provence, the galette is made of brioche shaped like a crown and studded with candied fruit, like King Cake in New Orleans, but without as much color. My friend Rosa Jackson does a terrific newsletter, and this month she included a mention of the Provencal galette made with brioche.
Brioche des rois from Benoît Castel
There are also galettes made of pâte brisée – the dough you’d use to make a quiche crust – and some that are made with a sourdough starter. There are even “dry” galettes – two layers of unfilled puff pastry. Poilâne in Paris does this kind of galette. But while Poilâne eschews filling, they never forget the fève.
The galette des rois from Poilâne
Pastry chefs gonna play
On December 23, before the last presents were slid under the tree and before we’d even had a sip of champagne for the New Year, the French edition of Elle magazine published a round-up of more than 30 galettes des rois. Even if you can’t read a word of French, it’s worth taking a look at the pictures – the galettes are stunning! On my list to try:
The sesame and halva galette from Maison Aleph (remember when the chef talked to us about strawberry tarts?)
The galette that looks like a cracked-top rye bread from French Bastards
The galette filled with William pears flavored with quatre-épices from Monoprix (my favorite supermarket) – it’s the least expensive on the list: 15.50 Euros
And the most gorgeous – stop-in-your-tracks stunning – galette from the tea purveyors, Mariage Frères. Called Galette Marco Polo Sublime (Marco Polo is one of their most aromatic and bestselling teas), the filling is blueberry-cassis frangipane and the puff pastry is black. Black!
Clockwise from top left: galettes from Maison Aleph, the French Bastards, Mariage Frères and Monoprix
Make your own galette des rois
While it might be hard to recreate some of the patisseriers’ galettes, it’s easy to make a simple one at home. Super-easy if you start with storebought puff pastry. You can use a whole almond (or a bean) for the trinket – but don’t forget to warn everyone that it’s there! The most difficult part of making a galette at home is making the crown, but that’s why Google and You Tube were invented. (Game of Thrones gave DIY crown-making a big boost.) Scroll down for my recipe.
I’ll be back on Friday with another xoxoDorie edition. Until then, bake a galette, find a fève, rock a crown and have fun.
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GALETTE DES ROIS
Adapted from my On Dessert column for The New York Times Magazine (by subscription)
Makes 8 servings
For the filling
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (85 grams) confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup (85 grams) almond flour
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 large egg white (reserve the yolk), at room temperature
1 tablespoon rum, preferably dark (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cold water
For the pastry
Two 9 1/2-inch-diameter circles puff-pastry dough (from a 14- to 17-ounce package; 396-482 grams), cold
1 whole almond, dried bean or small (ovenproof!) trinket
To make the filling: Working with a mixer or by hand, beat the butter and sugar together until light and creamy. Beat in the almond flour and the salt. Mix in the whole egg and then the egg white. Mix in the rum, if you’re using it, and the extract. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Lightly beat the reserved yolk and the water together; cover and refrigerate until needed.
To make the pastry: Place one circle of dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border bare. Press the charm into the filling. Moisten the border with cold water, position the second circle of dough over the filling and press around the border with your fingertips to seal well. Using the back of a table knife, scallop the edges by pushing into the dough (about 1/4- to 1/2-inch deep) every 1/2 inch or so. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees F.
Brush a thin layer of the yolk-glaze over the top of the galette, avoiding the border (drippy glaze can glue the layers together and impede the galette’s rise). With the point of a paring knife, etch a design into the top of the galette, taking care not to pierce the dough. Cross hatches, diamond shapes and backward C's are traditional, but you can make the design whatever you want - set your house style! You’ve got to pierce the top of the galette to allow the steam inside to escape. I like to use the paring knife to cut 6 small slits in the top, poking the slits into the etched lines, so they're kind of camouflaged.
Slide the galette into the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 400 degrees F.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the galette is puffed and deeply golden. Check after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if it’s browning too much or too fast. Transfer to a rack, and cool for at least 15 minutes (the galette may deflate — puff pastry can be that way).
Serve warm or at room temperature. And don't forget to give a slice to the kid under the table!
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