Today pastry shop windows in France and most of the rest of Europe are overflowing with galettes or gâteaux des rois, or king cakes, in honor of the Feast of the Three Kings or Epiphany, also know as Twelfth Night, on January 6. The kings in question were the Magi of Christian religious tradition who followed the gleaming star to Bethlehem with gifts for the newborn Christ child, arriving 12 days after his birth. In most places the feast is celebrated with a brioche-like cake enriched with candied and/or dried fruit and shaped like a giant doughnut. Paris pastry shops offer a more tailored version of the cake (recipe follows) similar to a gâteau Pithiviers with a rich almond filling baked between two disks of puff pastry. The king cake of the New Orleans Mardi Gras also ties into this: there as in many other cities and countries the carnival season that ends with Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, begins on January 6.
Even more traditions are associated with gateau/galette des rois. Today, when you buy one in a Paris pastry shop you’ll also receive a gold paper crown for the “king” who finds the fève, originally a dried fava bean, in his portion of the cake. By the middle of the 19th century, the beans were already being replaced by tiny porcelain figurines of a baby; today’s fèves may be anything from a cartoon character (the French love Smurfs which they refer to as Schtroumpfs) to a caricature of a sports hero. The tiny loaves of bread next to the galette in the photo are fèves. The king either buys a round of drinks or brings the cake to the next party; in Mexico the king supplies tamales for a celebration on Candelmas Day, February 2. My favorite and very Parisian observance dictates that although the president of France may enjoy as many galettes des rois as he likes, both fèves and crowns are prohibited since it would be unseemly to select or crown a king in the Elysée Palace…
Here’s the recipe from my book, A Baker’s Tour, published in 2005. The Quickest Puff Pastry recipe that follows is really quick and easy to prepare, but don’t hesitate to use bought (all butter, please) puff pastry.
GALETTE DES ROIS
Makes one 12-inch round cake
2/3 batch Quickest Puff Pastry, below, or 1 1/2 pounds prepared puff pastry
6 ounces canned almond paste, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon Kirsch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 dried fava bean or other fève, optional
EGG WASH: 1 egg well beaten with a pinch of salt
A cookie sheet or jellyroll pan covered with parchment or foil
- Place the dough on a floured surface and lightly flour it. Gently press the dough with a rolling pin to soften it. Roll the dough to a 12 x 18-inch rectangle. Cut the dough into two 9 x 12-inch rectangles. Roll each to a 12-inch square. Slide the squares of dough onto cookie sheets and refrigerate them while preparing the filling.
- For the almond filling combine the almond paste, sugar, and one of the eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer. Place the bowl on the mixer with the paddle attachment and beat the mixture on medium speed until smooth. Add the butter and continue beating for about 2 minutes to incorporate the butter smoothly. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl and beater with a large rubber spatula. On medium speed again, add the remaining 2 eggs, one at a time, beating smooth after each addition. Beat in the Kirsch and vanilla. Decrease the mixer speed to lowest and add the flour, only mixing until the flour is absorbed. Remove the bowl form the mixer and give the filling a final mixing with a large rubber spatula.
- Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
- Remove one of the squares of dough from the refrigerator and place it one the prepared pan. Put a plate or other 12-inch round pattern such as a cake cardboard, on the dough and cut the dough into a 12-inch disk, using a sharp pizza wheel. Remove and reserve the scraps of dough for another use. Spread the almond filling to within 1 1/2 inches of the edge, adding the bean if you are using it.
- Cut the other square of dough into a 12-inch disk. Paint the edge of the dough around the filling with the egg wash and place the other disk of dough on the filling, lining it up with the side of the bottom disk of dough all around. Press the 2 layers of dough together well to seal, using your fingertips. Use the back of a paring knife to indent the dough at 1/2-inch intervals. Paint the top of the pastry with the egg wash and let it rest for 10 minutes.
- Paint the pastry with egg wash again, then use the point of a paring knife to trace a series of parallel lines about an inch apart on the top of the pastry, only cutting about a third of the way through the dough. Repeat with another 12 lines or so at a 45-degree angle to the first ones.
- Bake the galette for about 45 minutes, or until it is well risen and the dough is well colored on the outside. Use a toothpick to check for dryness in the center of the galette.
Serving: This is a really casual dessert, meant to be cut into in wedges and served with a glass of sweet wine.
Storage: Keep the galette at room temperature on the day it is baked. Wrap leftovers in plastic and keep at room temperature.
QUICKEST PUFF PASTRY
This is really a machine-made version of quick puff pastry, where large cubes, as opposed to a single block, of butter are incorporated into the dough to create the layers that will later puff apart. I make this a lot in classes, and as proof of how quick it is to prepare I don’t even measure out the ingredients in advance. Once you’ve prepared this dough once or twice you can go from start to finish in about 15 minutes – maybe a world’s record for puff pastry production.
Make sure everything is cold and don’t attempt this if the kitchen is warm – the dough will turn to unmanageable goo on the work surface. The only other precaution regards pulsing the pieces of butter into the flour in the food processor. Be careful to follow the directions and only pulse 2 or 3 times before and after adding the water or the butter will be incorporated too finely and not form the required layers in the dough.
Makes about 2 1/2 pounds of dough
3/4 cup cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- Combine the water and salt in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir well to dissolve the salt completely. Set aside.
- Place the flour in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add 1/4 of the butter and pulse repeatedly to mix in finely. Add the remaining butter and pulse 2 or 3 times, just to distribute it in the flour mixture.
- Add the salted water and pulse 2 or 3 times again – the dough will not form a ball.
- Invert the dough to a floured work surface and carefully remove the blade. Lightly flour the dough and form it into a rough rectangle.
- Gently roll the dough, making sure there is always enough flour between the work surface and the dough to prevent it from sticking, until it is a rectangle about 15 x 24 inches.
- Fold one of the long edges over the middle section, and then fold the bottom edge over that to make three equal layers. Roll the dough up jellyroll-style from one of the short edges. Use the palm of your hand to flatten the rolled up dough into a rectangular shape, about 6 x 10 inches, and about an inch thick.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours, or until it is firm. It is then ready to use.
Storage: You may keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before using it. If you are preparing the dough longer in advance, double-wrap and freeze it. Defrost the dough in the refrigerator overnight before using.