After the festivities of Christmas and New Year comes Epiphany, celebrated on the first Sunday of January. All over France, the tradition is to eat a slice of a galette des rois, or kings’ cake, on or around this date. Baked inside the cake is a tiny ceramic figurine called a ‘fève‘ (bean), and the lucky person who finds it in their slice gets to be king for the day, wear a paper crown and start the new year with lots of luck – if they haven’t accidentally broken a tooth on the fève.
In origin, Epiphany, signifying the appearance of Christ in the world, was a religious festival celebrating the visit of the three kings. Later on, it became mixed with the Roman festival of Saturn, held around the same time of year. The bean and the cake were Roman traditions which became incorporated into the Christian festival, with the bean coming to symbolise the gifts offered by the kings. Gradually, the dried bean was replaced, towards the end of the 19th century, by pieces of gold or coins, or little porcelain figurines, enamelled and painted in the image of Christ, or of farm animals. Nowadays, a rare period example is worth hundreds of euros to a collector.
Here’s a modern-day fève. (It’s supposed to be a croissant cradling a mug of coffee. No, I’m not sure why either). It’s ceramic with a painted glaze, and it measures less than an inch square.
There are two types of cake, the brioche type which is a soft, sweet bread-like ring decorated with glace fruit and sugar crystals, and the frangipane type, a crusty circle of puff pastry filled with marzipan. Round us in the south west, both types are readily available in supermarkets and bakers, but if you’d like to make your own then the marzipan type is by far the easiest.
Marzipan galette des rois recipe (serves 8)
- 2 readymade circles of puff pastry (these are readily available in French supermarkets. Otherwise, buy two puff pastry blocks, roll them out to 0.5cm thick and cut them into circles about 30 – 32cm in diameter
- 100g butter, softened
- 125g ground almonds
- 100g sugar
- 2 free range eggs
- Few drops of almond essence
- A little milk for glazing
In a large bowl, beat the sugar and butter together and add the ground almonds. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition, then add the almond essence.
Roll out the first circle of pastry onto a baking sheet, and brush all round the edges with water. Spread the marzipan paste into the centre of the pastry, not going too close to the edges. Push the fève into the paste.
Carefully lift the second circle of pastry on top, and press thoroughly all round the edges with your fingers, making the seal as even as possible. Use the tines of a fork to press a pattern into the seal.
Put it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then brush the top with milk. With a sharp knife, slice some diagonal slits, or, if you’re feeling confident, a crown or flower pattern into the top of the galette, then bake at 240 degrees celsius for ten minutes. Reduce the temperature to 180 degrees Celsius, and bake for another 20 minutes until risen and golden. For a professional finish, allow to cool slightly then brush with sugar syrup.
Happy New Year!