I took French class for approximately a million years. OK, nine years. In college, the Jesuits didn’t allow us to graduate until “fluent” in a language. So, once we got accepted into the college, we took a placement test. By that point, I’d had six years of Madame Clerismé trying to explain why the hell the French had like 40 words for meeting someone. Years that also included exercises with our lips stretched forward while we tried to pronounce words that ended in -re. French became a thing I rehearsed, not a thing I thought about.
Needless to say, I flunked the placement test and got placed in the beginner level. This was not a bad thing– especially since during one of my first classes, among my cool new college classmates, I read an entire paragraph written in English with French pronunciation. Only after tripping over the word “is” did I realize that the paragraph was not in French at all.
After that incident, I’ve been pretty shy about my language-learning skills. However, ask me about French celebrations and I’ll delightfully chatter away about a combination of things I learned either as a middle schooler or in some David Sedaris essay. One French tradition that’s always stuck out in my mind? The king cake.
Here’s what I remember learning, fleshed out with very minimal Googling: The tradition has to do with a celebration of the Christian feast day Epiphany. (Note the difference between the French king cake and the Louisianian version eaten around Mardi Gras.) For Western Christians, Epiphany commemorates the moment when the Wise Men visited baby Jesus and realized he was the Son of God. It happens sometime in January and French people celebrate the day with une galette des rois– the cake of kings! A flaky pastry “cake” is filled with a tasty filling– usually almond cream, but in my case, caramelized apples (we always have too many apples). Also baked into the cake is a small toy or bean. Then, the cake is presented with a paper crown on top. Slice, serve. Whoever finds the bean/toy in their slice gets to wear the crown for the day.
Since day one, king cakes have conflicted me to the very core. Do I want the bean/toy to fall in my slice? What a perfectly awful way to ruin a cake-eating experience. But, I want to wear the crown, naturally. If nothing else, years and years of making sure my little sister wasn’t cheating at Pretty, Pretty Princess taught me just that.
Solution? Nix the bean, bake the cake for a hungry boyfriend, and while he’s distracted by the deliciousness, declare yourself supreme ruler of the apartment for the day. Or, lie about getting the bean in your slice. If nothing else, years of cheating at Pretty, Pretty Princess taught me just that.
For the cake, you can use store-bought puff pastry (makes things so quick and easy) or do it yourself (not hard, just time consuming). Then just stuff it with your filling, carve a design into the top and bake! I derived my recipe from Life’s a Feast.
Une Galette des Rois aux Pommes
1 store-bought package of puff pastry
egg wash (1 egg, beaten)
4 apples peeled, cored and sliced
1 ½ Tbsp butter
1/8 cup sugar
2 to 3 Tbsp rum
- Before beginning, read instructions on pastry package for preparation. You may need to let defrost. Preheat oven according to directions. Usually about 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the granulated sugar and stir until the mixture is smooth, grainy and bubbling. Add the apple slices and toss to coat; after 5 minutes, stir in rum and a dash of cinnamon, stir until well blended and continue cooking until the apples are very soft and fall apart when pressed with utensil.
- Remove from the heat and purée, either shredding with a fork or pureeing with blender. Let cool.
- Cut pastry into rounds (I just eyeball it) of the same size. Place your bottom piece on a non-stick baking sheet. Place filling in center and spread to about 1 inch from edge of pastry. Cover with top round and press out air bubbles, sealing edges. Now you can scallop edges and carve a design into the top using a paring knife. Brush with egg wash.
- Place pan in oven and bake according to pastry directions. About 35 mins total. During last 10 minutes of baking, dust the top of the galette generously with powdered sugar. Return to the oven and let sugar melt over the top, creating a glaze (or, if you’re like me, perhaps take the cake out a bit early if you like a powdered sugar topping).
Photo credit: Dan Hyun