Though there are many sorts of Epiphany cakes made in the Christian world, the galette des rois (“kings’ cake”) is considered the classic, mainly because it’s northern French, and in the world of pastry northern France is the center of the universe. Maybe one day that center will move, maybe back to Vienna, or someplace entirely new like Tobago, Hyderabad, or Kentucky. Until then we’ll all look toward Paris for direction on how to properly whip a chocolate mousse. You know, we could do a lot worse.
But where was I? Oh yes, a standard galette des rois is a decorated round of puff pastry filled with frangipane, also known in some circles as “almond cream.” No big deal. It’s really the ritual of the galette des rois that makes it special. For inside a proper kings’ cake is always a little trinket of some sort. Classically, this trinket was an uncooked bean. Later it was a small porcelain figurine. Nowadays it can be a tiny plastic baby, gold coin, or just about anything else that can be safely hidden inside and discovered by a lucky diner.
What happens if you get the little…whatever it is…in your piece of kings’ cake? That all depends on where you live, but in many localities the finder of the toy is honored by becoming the “king” for the day (a paper crown is sometimes provided for that reason). In other places he or she simply picks up the check. How’d you like to live in that lame town?
If all this sounds a little familiar to some of you — especially those of you who’ve been to New Orleans around Mardi Gras time — it’s because it’s essentially the same tradition. For enjoyment of the kings’ cake isn’t strictly limited to the Epiphany. It can be big-time carnival fare as well. As for the reasons for that, well, that’s another post.