We’re all getting back to work after the holidays, but the French aren’t through celebrating just yet. The beginning of January marks the feast of the Epiphany, and every bakery is decked out with one of my favourite pastries, the galette des rois, or king cakes, to make sure any New Year diets don’t begin immediately.
The king cakes are a tradition that date back to Roman times, but the modern interpretation deals with the arrival of the three kings to visit Jesus shortly after his birth. The religious significance, however, seems lost on most French people, who simply enjoy the delicious cake. While it varies in form, the basic galette des rois is a circular flaky pastry crust filled with frangipane, an almond paste. It can have chocolate, apple or other fillings, depending on the bakery.
While delicious in its own right, the cake is just part of the tradition. The way we eat the king cake is very particular if you want to respect the tradition – or what became tradition. So here’s the deal. Once you have your king cake at home and your friends are all gathered to enjoy it, the youngest person in attendance has to get under the table. I’ve done it enough times to know that this is no joke.
Then another person will cut the cake while the person under the table will call out a name, assigning the piece to that person without actually seeing the cake. Why all the theatrics? Hidden in the cake is a little token called a fève, usually a little cartoon character or a baby Jesus in the manger. Whoever has the token in their cake slice wins the ultimate prize: they wear the crown and become the king (or queen) for the day. The idea is that the person who assigns each piece doesn’t see the cake, just in case the fève is visible during the cutting.
It sounds ridiculous, but it makes for a good laugh.
Choosing a king cake in Paris is no easy task. Nearly every bakery sells them during January, but not all are created equal. Head to high-end bakery Dalloyau and you can get a pretty stellar cake baked fresh. The 45-euro price tag, however, is not something that most Parisians are going to swallow easily. It is just a cake, after all.
Local bakeries produce the cakes for anywhere between 12 and 20 euros, depending on where you look and how big of a cake you’d like. They make them small enough for one or two people, or with cakes serving up to 10 at some bakeries. Even grocery stores like Monoprix have them for cheap. The downside is that many, if not most of these cakes are not artisanal, but rather frozen industrial galettes that aren’t really worth the high price tags.
On the bright side, they all come with their own paper crown for whoever finds the fève.
There is an easy way to get a fresh, affordable galette fix, however, as long as you’re not a food snob – and I am definitely not. Do as most Parisians do and head to Picard, the frozen food shop, where the cakes sell for 5.90 euros. They aren’t pre-cooked, and need only be put in the oven for 45 minutes. Of course it comes with its own crown in the box. It may seem like a low-end version, but it ends up being fresher and way cheaper than the fussier options available in Paris.
As long as you have access to an oven, put the frozen galette in the oven and throw the box away before your guests arrive. They’ll never know it was purchased from Picard. If you don’t have an oven, well, you could always hang around the dessert aisle at Picard and see if you can get invited to someone’s galette party.
No matter how you experience the galette des rois, make sure you pair it with a good bottle of cider and cross your fingers that you get to wear that crown!
Ready to have your own galette des rois experience in Paris? Check out our hotel deals for the French capital.