The galette des rois, or king cake, is a French tradition that dates back to the Roman era and the end of the year Saturnalia, which was a festival at the end of the year that included religious observance, gift-giving, and some pretty wild partying. A small bean, a miserable little thing that held within it the promise of life in the spring to come, was hidden in a cake. When the cake was served, whoever found the bean in his or her slice, was granted special treatment for the day.
The galette des rois is pretty much the same in form and function, christianized as to symbolism. A cake of flakey pastry, with a frangipane filling, has a small porcelain figurine, still called a bean or fève, hidden in it, and is served on the 6th of January, Epiphany. The person who finds the fève in his or her slice wears a crown for the day. We are well past the 6th of January, but the French so love the cake that it can still be found in the supermarkets, bakeries and pastry shops.
We, personally, find the cake to be so flat, tasteless and dry, that the hope of a prize really is the only inducement to eating it. However, our children and their French cousins love the thing, so we suspect that it is one of those foods that, like Marmite for the English, must be consumed before the age of three, when discernment begins, for it to be a taste that one can tolerate. Then, with the memory of the taste lodged deep in the subconscious, eating it becomes some sort of comfort. Apparently, king cake is such a comfort food and so easy to make that, during these interminable lockdowns, confinements, people are making them at home and consuming them all year round, as this charming presentation, "What's behind France's 'galette des rois' tradition?", complete with recipe, explains.
Perhaps the French side of your family has a recipe for king cake, or something of a similar name, with an object hidden inside, and the cake eaten around the time of the new year? If so, find it, for it may help you to identify the part of France from which your French ancestors came. Each region varied the recipe slightly, quite naturally, according to the ingredients available, or preferred. Each region claims that their recipe is for the "real" king cake.
- In Brittany, the cake itself is not made with flakey pastry but is sablée, or shortbread, a much more solid and buttery affair.
- In Gascony, Provence and Languedoc, the cake is made with a brioche pastry (much less dry) and formed into a circle, approximating a crown. Even better, orange blossom extract and rum are added.
- Around Pau, anis flavouring is added to the above recipe.
- In Nice, the dry version with frangipane is scorned as "Parisian" and inedible. Their version uses brioche pastry and candied fruits.
- In Bordeaux, the cake is shaped into a circle, approximating a crown, and is made with brioche pastry, with candied citron and pearl sugar sprinkled on top.
- In Franche-Comté, around Besançon, the flakey pastry is replaced with choux pastry, that used for cream puffs, and, again, orange blossom extract is added.
- In the far north, around Dunkirk, it is more of a layer cake. Two layers of a "light brioche" pastry (meaning fewer eggs) have a rum-flavoured cream layer between them.
- In Auvergne, it is not even a cake or round. It is made with bread dough, shaped into a star. People were poor in Auvergne, so being able to add sugar may have been all that was possible.
As you can see, just about all of France, except for Paris, dislikes that dry, tasteless and messy, flakey pastry so, if that is what your ancestor loved with a passion, you may have Parisian roots.
A French way to get through the next lockdown!
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From Madame I - "Mais moi j'adore la galette des rois !!! C'est mon gâteau d'anniversaire et ce n'est pas sec, c'est tout plein de beurre!"
This is interesting; is the king cake the birthday cake for all those born in January, we wonder?
From Madame L - "as an elementary school student in New Orleans in the 1960’s, king cake was a Mardi Gras treat! There were wonderful parades downtown, businesses and schools were closed that Monday through Ash Wednesday that week, and our school, C.... Elementary, had a parade around the block. The children in St ..... Catholic school next door, hung out the windows to watch us parade by. Such good memories! Thanks for reminding me!"
So! The king cake tradition extends well into February in New Orleans.
©2021 Anne Morddel