A Pastry Fit for a King — or a Queen

A Pastry Fit for a King — or a Queen

Winter in Paris always surprises me. From one January to the next, I forget how very short the days are, how damp the air is, how often it seems we’re on the brink of snow but how seldom it arrives, how rare a day of sunshine is and then how weak the light can be. But January brings compensatory pleasures: hot chocolate, vin chaud (a mix of mulled wine, brandy and orange), roasted chestnuts bought on the street, freshly griddled crepes rolled into paper cones and the galette des rois, a pastry sold only during this gray month.

“Galette” is a word that can still trip me up in translation: It can be a pancake, a buckwheat crepe, a chubby cookie or a double-crusted pastry, which describes the galette des rois. Created to celebrate Epiphany — the day the Three Kings (les rois) brought gifts to the infant Jesus — the galette is beloved throughout northern France (in the south, they make a brioche cake, a gâteau des rois that resembles a New Orleans king cake).

The galette has two components: a pair of puff-pastry circles and a frangipani-type filling. Although pastry chefs have taken to creating fillings with fruits (dried or roasted), chocolate, rose, coconut, citrus and various nuts, the form remains true to tradition. The edges of the galette are scalloped, the better to show the dramatic rise of the pastry and to seal in the velvety almond cream that is the perfect counterpoint to the flaky crusts. (If a galette doesn’t shatter into hundreds of buttery shards, then a measure of its character is lost.) The top, baked to a burnished matte mahogany, is etched in a spare pattern with the tip of a knife — no icing, no frosting, no frippery or frills. In the world of prettily decorated pastries, the galette is as plain as toast.

In the years when I was a frequent tourist in Paris, I wasn’t much interested in galettes. I was even miffed that for weeks these large pastries overwhelmed patisserie windows and pushed aside most other specialties, the ones that visitors could eat on the run or savor in a hotel room. It was only when I moved to Paris and had a home and friends of my own that I came to appreciate it and to understand one reason locals love it: It’s as much a party game as a pastry. Like a birthday cake, it’s an invitation to gather and celebrate.

Every galette comes with a crown — some from the best patisseries are intricately designed, but most are made of gold cardboard — and a charm. In earlier times, the charm was a dried bean, a fève — it’s still the name for the trinket, even though, as with the crowns, today’s fèves, made of porcelain, can be quite elaborate. From Epiphanies past, I’ve saved fèves shaped like macarons (one was black — so chic and so unusual), sheaves of wheat, hearts and stylized beans. If the charm is hidden in your portion, you get the crown and the title of king or queen for the day. How that portion becomes yours is always a matter of luck: Many French families have the youngest person in the room get under the table and call out who should get the next slice of galette.

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