A Tale of Two Kingcakes

Inspired by two years and two Epiphanies of tasting galettes des rois, first all over Paris and then at one very special patisserie in Montreal, we decided this year in northern Virginia to make our own. Two galettes came together side by side, sharing the same puff pastry and the same almond filling. The results were anything but the same.

To our credit, one finished cake looked and tasted just like the galette, or kingcake, we devoured time after time in Montreal – made by a French-born pastry chef who’d earned the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Not a specifically culinary honor, this “best worker” award is given to French men and women in any field who’ve risen to highest levels of their art. Yes, one of our two galettes rose to approximately the “meilleur ouvrier” level.

As with most things in this world, there is a backstory. After spending last Epiphany in Montreal, we both tried making French-style galettes at our homes. Using the same recipe, both efforts (two cakes each) ended up leaking their almond filling out through the sides and all over the baking pans. Besides being a kind of structural failure, the real downer was losing all that filling, which in general is the best part. Our mission this year was to test different techniques and compare different recipes – and not have that happen again.

The hard part, as you would be smart to observe, was not knowing what had caused the problem in the first place.

We worked from two similar recipes, combining as we went, borrowing touches from each as made the most sense. One recipe had better-sounding filling, so we made that. The other had more logical baking instructions, so we followed those. Several steps, like cutting slits to vent steam during baking, were in one recipe but not the other. We did, in each such case, what seemed the more likely to succeed.

Since we each made a kingcake essentially with our name on it, working side by side and passing ingredients but still working independently, we realized only after the fact that we had done two things differently. When it came to sealing the top and bottom edges around the circle, first with fingers and then with a knife, she “fussed over” hers quite a while longer than I did.

Since she bakes anything and everything well, “fussing over” has to be considered par for the course. Bakers fuss in ways that no savory cook would tolerate or begin to understand. It’s how and why they bake. And, as this exercise showed us in letters writ large, it matters.      

Only talking afterward did we discover what might be the biggest difference. I followed a step in one of the recipes to press down the top layer of puff pastry to spread the filling evenly inside. She “missed” that step, keeping the filling gathered in the center where it’s placed. Logically it spreads a bit as it bakes, built as it is mostly from butter and sugar. It melts, it spreads.

One thing it doesn’t do is escape out sides that surely are closer after pressing and perhaps are pulled a little open by all I did but she didn’t. My filling was lava flowing out over the pan, leaving far too little inside. The fact that the leaked filling formed a kind of crispy, caramelized brownie or cookie that tasted mighty good was no more than a minor consolation.

I won’t know the trick for sure until I make another galette des rois, probably soon since they can be (and are) enjoyed through the entire Carnival season all the way until Lenten austerity sets in. The problem might indeed be the pressing, which I can simply never do again, whatever that silly old recipe says. Or it might be the “fussing over” that makes all the difference, something I don’t actually know how to do.

We came away from this baking experience remembering the pastry shop we so loved in Montreal, Maison Christian Faure, how one entire room was a large wooden table piled high with galettes ordered, baked and wrapped in paper bags with the ends unsealed for customer pickup. All the cakes looked perfect that day, we thought, enjoying the warmth of galette, coffee and heat after coming in out of the snow. We now know how to bake a perfect galette des rois. At least 50% of the time.

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