It’s has been a long, hard road for me, learning to prefer the traditional puff-pastry-almond-paste galette des rois of France over the also-traditional sweet brioche kingcakes of my native New Orleans. My journey has been helped along by spending Epiphany eating galettes (yes, definitely more than one) in Paris two years ago and then eating galettes in Montreal at this time last year.
It’s also been helped by New Orleans kingcakes getting worse every day. That last, of course, is what they call one man’s opinion.
So let’s talk definitions here. A galette des rois (or sometimes galette de roi, meaning only one king in French) is a pastry created to memorialize Epiphany, January 6, the day that by long Christian tradition the three kings, or magi or wise men, arrived at the humble birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. By another long, mostly Christian tradition, galette des rois is enjoyed not only on Epiphany, the day itself known as Twelfth Night, but throughout the 40 days and 40 nights leading to the austerity of Lent.
That period has a name, Carnival, and it culminates bigtime in some parts of the world, including Venice, Nice and Rio, on Fat Tuesday. In French, that’s Mardi Gras. And in any language, that’s where my hometown comes into the picture.
I’m always amazed that in a story beset by traditional beliefs and practices, the two kingcakes could be so different. In fact, the first time I tasted galette in Paris years ago, I was sorely disappointed. It simply wasn’t the sweet bread ring sprinkled with purple, green and gold sugar I had grown up eating, sometimes even getting the plastic baby or other charm tucked inside – which, when you’re an adult in New Orleans, means you have to buy another kingcake the next day. Thus, Kingcake Season. Or Fattening Season, racing in right after the Fattening Holidays.
In France, and indeed in a Montreal lovely with snow one year ago , galette des rois might now be my favorite puff pastry treat ever. Especially when produced by legendary French baker Christian Faure. As it bakes, the puff pastry (which is hard to make but can be bought frozen locally) rises and crisps, forming a round pocket around the almond paste you make and spread between two layers of the pastry.
As I came to realize in Paris, the stuff is nothing short of amazing. Seeing a galette in any Parisian pastry shop window became yet another perfect excuse for coming in from the wet cold winter.
Now about New Orleans kingcakes getting worse. I still can love a simple traditional brioche kingcake, which resembles what some call a coffeecake and goes wonderfully with – who knew? – coffee. In recent years, New Orleans being New Orleans, good enough was never good enough. First came the icing, light or heavy, and then the filling – almost always involving a ton of cream cheese and cup after cup of fruit jelly or preserves. Enough. In fact, too much. Honestly, I hate what they’ve done to my kingcake.
Though I’m still amazed at the great France-New Orleans kingcake disconnect, I did learn from the Internet the other day a possible explanation. Seems that the galette is baked as at Christian Faure everywhere in France except the south, especially in the southwest as you near the Pyrenees. I’ve often read and heard that most of the original French settlers of my hometown, including names lots of people know, hailed from a town called Pau. And there it is on the map, at the center of southwest France.
I wouldn’t mind spending Epiphany someplace that’s still REALLY French every year for the rest of my life. I know it’s about the galette des rois, but the French make some other pretty good food and wine all year while they’re at it.
GALETTE DES ROIS
If you’d like to try a super-traditional galette at least the first time, yes, you have our permission to leave out our jam. We have found, however, that without changing anything about the taste or texture almond paste, the jam intensifies the flavor.
1-2 (17.3-ounce) store-bought puff pastry sheets, thawed in refrigerator if frozen
Almond Paste Cream:
1 cup softened butter
1 cup ground blanched almonds or almond flour
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar for dusting
Egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. With an electric beater, mix all the ingredients for the almond paste cream just until blended. On a slightly floured cold surface, cut 2 circles the size of dinner plates out of the puff pastry. Put one of them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush one inch around the edge of the circle with egg wash (beaten egg yolk). Spread half of the frangipane cream on the center and place the second circle on top matching the edges of the circles.
Press all around the edges to “glue” them together. Press softly in the center to evenly spread the filling. If making 2 galettes, use remaining cream and follow the same method for preparation. Decorate the galette with a fork, press edges together all around, but no pricking. With the point of a knife, make any kind of design, being careful not to go all the way through the puff pastry. Brush the surface with egg wash being careful not to get any on the sides.
Bake the galette in the center of a preheated 450 degree oven for 15 minutes then 350 degrees for 30 minutes. For the last 5 minutes, sprinkle with powdered sugar and bake until golden brown. Trim off any leaked paste using a knife. Serve warm with gold paper crown on top. Serves about 10.