Just as the Christmas season starts to wind down, Parisian patisseries begin to hum with new activity. Shimmering galettes des rois (kings’ cakes) are baked in honor of Epiphany, the January 6th Christian holiday that commemorates the three Magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Because the majestic treat is popular among everyone as a way to celebrate the new year, regardless of religious affiliation, bakeries often sell the cakes through the end of January.
The Most Festive French Pastry Is a Galette des Rois
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There are a few styles of galette des rois, including a shortbread kind from western France and a candied fruit-studded brioche found in the Riviera and New Orleans, but my favorite version of the seasonal treat comes from northern France. It features rounds of flaky, buttery pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) sandwiched around a generous smear of frangipane (almond cream), etched with a regal design, and lacquered with a sugary glaze.
But the pleasures of the galette aren’t limited to its scrumptious taste and inviting looks. They also include the playful custom of hiding a fève (trinket) inside the cake for a lucky beneficiary to discover while enjoying a slice, earning them a paper crown and the title of king (or queen) for the day (to read more about this tradition, see “The Hidden Charms of Galette des Rois”).
A Royal Subject
In France, few people make galettes des rois at home since they’re so readily available. But stateside, homemade is often the only way to go. Thankfully, the dessert comes together with remarkable ease if you start with frozen puff pastry, a real time-saver that bakes up beautifully crisp and flaky.
The Hidden Charms of A Galette Des Rois
A galette des rois comes with built‑in cheer in the form of an ancient tradition that originally involved tucking a dried fava bean inside the cake to symbolize fertility and the coming of spring. Today, a small, collectible fève (a porcelain or plastic trinket), a whole almond, or a different dried bean often replaces the fava. At serving time, the youngest child, who is perceived to be the most innocent, crouches beneath the table with the cake and dictates which slice goes to whom. The guest who receives the fève is crowned “le roi” (king) or “la reine” (queen) for the day, and is bestowed the honor of wearing a gilded crown.
And although it sounds fancy, frangipane—a dense, creamy almond filling that’s used in numerous cakes and tarts—is also surprisingly easy to prepare. I made mine by rubbing softened butter together with almond flour, sugar, all-purpose flour, and salt and then stirring in eggs and a touch of either rum or almond or vanilla extract. (Some galettes des rois recipes call for crème frangipane, made by folding pastry cream into the mixture, but I liked the clean, almondy simplicity of a pure frangipane.)
With the puff pastry thawed and the frangipane ready, it was simply a matter of assembling the galette. Using an overturned bowl as a template, I traced a circle on a thawed, rolled-out square of puff and then spread a thick round of frangipane inside the circle, leaving a 1-inch border so that the lush filling wouldn’t ooze out of the cake. After a glance over my shoulder to be sure no one was peeking, I nestled a fève into the frangipane before continuing.
Simple Steps to a Majestic Dessert
Using bowl as template, trace 91/2-inch circle on puff pastry. Spread filling into 71/2-inch round on circle. Press fève into top of filling. Brush border with egg wash.
Mold second pastry sheet around filling. Using sharp knife and bowl that served as template, cut out round. Press to seal and freeze 30 minutes. Brush with egg wash.
Using toothpick, make 8 evenly spaced holes around perimeter and 1 in center. Drag toothpick in curved line from center to edge. Repeat, spacing lines ¼ inch apart.
A striking appearance is of utmost importance here, and I found that a few small details when applying the top layer of pastry made the difference between mediocre and magnificent results. First, brushing the border of the bottom layer with egg wash helped secure the top layer, preventing unsightly gaps. Second, gently molding the dough so that it tightly hugged the frangipane eliminated air bubbles, ensuring that the puff didn’t rise lopsided. Once the top and bottom layer were sealed, I cut the pastry into a round before slipping it into the freezer for 30 minutes before baking; a thorough chill would help the puff realize its full flaky potential in the oven.
I painted the pastry with egg wash to encourage bronzing and poked ventilation holes with a toothpick to mitigate doming. Using the same toothpick, I scored the dough in a series of gentle curves emanating from the center, creating a decorative spiral. Lastly, I brushed a water-sugar glaze (bolstered with corn syrup to prevent crystallization) onto the fully baked cake and slid it back into the turned-off oven to dry into a shiny top coat. Et voilà: galette des rois.
Pop some Champagne or sparkling cider and prepare for a coronation. Who knows? You might just get the slice that changes your destiny for the day.