If you’ve ever found yourself in a French patisserie around the beginning of January, you’ve probably noticed a unique and delicious cake lining the shelves. Made of rich buttery pastry and filled with mouthwatering almond cream, it’s an indulgent treat the French love to eat.
But this is no ordinary cake, as you’ll probably be able to tell by the paper golden crowns typically used to top these baked creations in stores. Much more than just a sugary treat, this is known as La Galette des Rois, or the Kings’ Cake. Every year at the celebration of Epiphany, on January 6, French families get together ‘pour tirer les rois’, to find the kings.
You see, while tucking into the Kings’ Cake is undoubtedly a treat for the tastebuds, there’s an extra-special treat waiting inside. A lucky charm, usually a trinket of some sort, is hidden inside the cake. While you might think this could be a choking hazard, it’s actually an honour to find this little charm. In fact, the person that ends up with the slice of cake with the charm inside becomes “king” for the day, gets to wear a crown and then “rules” over family and friends — of course, all in the right spirit.
It’s a fun French tradition that’s all about spending time with family and enjoying an indulgent treat, but the origins of La Galette des Rois can actually be traced back to ancient Roman times. The Romans used to hold the Saturnalia festival from late December into the early days of January, with the event designed to honour the god of agriculture.
There are conflicting theories as to how this baking tradition started, but it’s thought that either a cake or a loaf of bread was baked with a bean hidden inside. The lucky person who found the bean was then crowned king for the day.
With the rise of Christianity, however, the winter solstice celebration was changed to the Epiphany, and La Galette des Rois came to symbolise the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus. The tradition was to cut a piece for every member of the family plus one, with this extra piece said to be for the first poor person who visited. The youngest child present, said to be the most innocent and the fairest with the distribution of slices, would go under the table and then select which slice is to be given to which person.
Over the centuries, eating the King’s cake has become an even more ingrained part of French culture. It even survived moves to ban it following the French Revolution — at the time, the last thing anyone wanted was another king. Now, families all over France engage in the tradition of La Galette des Rois, each person hoping their slice will contain the lucky charm or trinket that will give them a taste of power for just one day.
Now you know the history behind this iconic French creation, why not bake one yourself at home?
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1/3 cup of butter
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of ground almond
- 2 sheets of puff pastry
- 1 tablespoon of dark rum
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
To make the cream filling, blend the butter and sugar together until combined to form a fluffy mixture. Add the rum, vanilla essence, one egg and the ground almond. Cream until smooth, then cover and refrigerate for a minimum of one hour.
While the filling is chilling, cover a cake dish with one sheet of puff pastry. Then fill the pie with the almond cream mixture, remembering to add your trinket. Top with the second sheet of puff pastry, then brush the top of the cake with the lightly beaten second egg.
Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry is crispy and golden.
This deliciously rich pastry creation is so good, it’s fit for a king.