Story and Tradition of French Galette des Rois Epiphany King Cake

Origine et histoire de l'épiphanie

Do you know where the tradition of eating a king cake , or should I say Tart of the kings? – called galette des rois in French – at Epiphany day comes from? Why drawing a bean or a lucky charm? Will you have a galette or a brioche?

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First of all, the story

Even if Epiphany was for a long time celebrated on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, we now eat king cake the first Sunday of January (and often during the whole month of January!)

Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men – Magi Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – from the East to Bethlehem, following the bright star sawn the sky the day of Jesus’ birth. Their journey lasted 12 days before they could celebrate baby Jesus’ venue and offer him gifts.

The Catholic Church officially declared Christmas Day on December 25 in 336 AD, thus making it coincide with the ancient popular pagan celebrations having all kind of old rituals related winter solstice (celebrating days getting longer and the return of the sun during 12 days).

Around the 13th and 14th century began the firsts Epiphany cake sharing tradition (shares for everyone present plus one, saved for the poor). The tradition of sending the youngest child, supposedly the most innocent, shall also come from that time (or from ancient Rome, everyone does not agree here).

Galette or brioche

King cake traditionally called galette des rois in French whatever it may be have various shapes, type of cake and flavor depending on the region and local traditions. But of all stories, there is one that gave it its name to it, the galette.

In the 16th century, the king cake was the subject of a fierce war between bakers and pastry chefs, each wanting a monopoly on its sale, already feeling it could become a lucrative market. King Francois the 1st granted the right to Pastry chefs. Bakers skirted their ban of selling king cakes by replacing them with galettes that they offered to their customers.

In Paris, king cake was a mixed with the Pithiviers cake to become a galette of puff pastry filled with almond frangipane. In Southern France, it is an orange blossom flavored brioche with candied fruit. In the Alps, the galette of my childhood was a generous brioche with huge pink pralines. I wonder if there is somewhere a complete list of all the different king cakes served across France. I promise, next year I will start my tour of France regional king cakes recipes.

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And what about the bean? Today, no galette des rois without a lucky charm

The tradition comes from the 14th century when, for the first time, in Besancon (Eastern France) monks began to elect their chief chapter by putting a gold coin in a piece of bread. The bread was then replaced by a brioche crown (were they gourmets?), and gold coin by a bean (cheaper!).

This tradition has developed rapidly in all layers of the population. Or was it a memory of old customs? In Babylon as a slave drew lots of royalty, becoming king of a day (but being killed at the end of his reign) and in Rome during Saturnalia (celebrating the god Saturn) during the winter solstice: during one day masters and slaves were on treated as equals – they even ate at the same table -, a king was elected for the day. The king could achieve what he wanted and give pledges.

Then under King Louis XIII, the ladies of the court use to draw lots. The winner became the queen for a day and could request a vow to the king. This was quickly abolished by his successor Louis XIV.

In the same period (14th century) the custom of “the king drinks” appeared. Whoever got a piece of cake with a bean inside had to offer a drink to the whole assembly. It is said that the stingiest use to swallow the bean not to have to pay. Thus appeared porcelain charms, as they were more difficult to swallow. The real beans were replaced by porcelain figurines representing Jesus in the 18th century (and a Phrygian cap during the French revolution and nowadays all kind of things).

Actually, the first beans were put in king cakes because they were a symbol of fertility (the bean is the first vegetable growing in spring after the winter solstice).

This tradition continues in France of course, but also in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. You may read me abroad. Is there an after Christmas tradition in your country? What is it?

And do you have a collection of porcelain lucky charms? Which is the most original or awesome?

Galette des rois recipes to celebrate Epiphany

Galette des Rois King Cake with Lemon Filling
No classic almond nor frangipane cream filling in this French Galette des rois king cake, but two layers of puff pastry garnished with a fluffy lemon cream (lemon curd mixed with pastry cream). Celebrate epiphany like the French with this delicious cake.
Voir la recette
French galette des rois Epiphany king cake with lemon filling
French Galette des Rois King Cake with Apple Filling
The traditional French galette des rois with two layers of buttery puff pastry filled here with applesauce compote and apple chunks, to change from the classic almond cream frangipane feeling. Make applesauce. Cut remaining apples into quarters. Stuff puff pastry with applesauce and pieces of apple. Cover with the second disc of puff pastry, seal and bake.
Voir la recette
Epiphaniy - French Galette des Rois King Cake with Apple Filling
French Galette Des Rois King Cake, Chocolate and Almond Filling
The typical French galette des rois made with a mix of puff pastry and almond cream filling called frangipane is here flavored with dark chocolate, actuallly cocoa powder. Prepare pastry cream and almond cream. Mix them together to get a frangipane cream. Assemble the two pastry puff disks with the frangipane filling carefully following the instructions.
Voir la recette
Galette des rois frangipane au chocolat
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Written by Florence RICHOMME