It's Galette des Rois season. Never heard of Galette des Rois? Neither had I until a few years ago, when my French sister-in-law tipped me off. It's a cake made in France, and in French bakeries here, in January to mark Epiphany.
And if today is the first time you're learning about this delightful gâteau and are persuaded to go out and buy one, you're welcome. I'll arguably have accomplished more for the human race than anything I've done previously. I realize that's not saying much. But you're being introduced to a whole new category of cake. And one with characteristic French savoir-faire.
It would be as if you'd reached the age of 30, 40, 50, or however old you are, and you'd never heard of, let alone tasted, a petit four. Or make that chocolate layer cake, made from the freshest ingredients. Imagine that your mom trotted out a chicken potpie with candles for every birthday as a kid, and then one year she placed a homemade chocolate cake in front of you—with icing and white cake and flowers. Or maybe ballerinas or spaceships and Buzz Lightyear figurines. Wouldn't you remember that birthday as one of the best ever?
I don't want to oversell Galette des Rois; actually, I probably already have. But name me another cake that comes with a prize baked inside—like Cracker Jacks, if Cracker Jacks still included surprises worth owning instead of those ridiculous stickers or tattoos they throw in these days.
I don't quite understand the significance of the trinkets. If you want to know more, you can visit my sister-in-law's blog (squatorclamor.wordpress.com), where she traces the cake's history back to the Romans. Which reminds me: The ritual also includes a paper crown, the finder of the toy declared "King for a Day." Apparently, if you visit Paris at this time of year you'll see otherwise sensible adults, as well as kids, walking around with paper crowns on their heads.
I'm not willing to go that far. I might if Galette des Rois came with sprinkles or butter cream frosting. Sadly, it doesn't. Indeed, part of its appeal is its understated elegance. It's made of flaky puff pastry with an almond filling. It's so discreet that if you have any left over from dinner—which is basically impossible at our house, because it's so light I could have polished off an entire cake on my own, and had to force myself to share—you could enjoy it for breakfast the next morning with orange juice and coffee and feel only slightly decadent.
This year I didn't just buy a Galette des Rois: I watched one being made at Mille-feuille, a French bakery on Laguardia Place. Mille-feuille has arguably the best croissant in town. So it makes sense that they'd manufacture a top tier Galette des Rois as well.
"Almond croissants are very similar," observed Olivier Dessyn, Mille-feuille's owner. "Here comes the difference: You can put in some orange extract, or pistachio; some people like raspberries."
He doesn't, however. Neither does my sister-in-law. "People don't like variations," she said. "I'm sure some people make it fancy. Instead of almond, they put something different. But they don't think it's the real thing."
One aspect of the tradition I strongly relate to is that while you might make or buy only one a season yourself, all your friends and their families have them the week of Epiphany, too. (The holiday is Jan. 6, but Mr. Dessyn, responding to popular demand, will be making them throughout January and perhaps even into February. Best to order in advance.)
Returning to that birthday cake analogy, imagine you're a French kid and for one week a year you know you'll be offered birthday cake at anybody's house you visit. If that doesn't turn the dog days of winter into glorious spring, I don't know what could. "Eighty percent of the time they bought it," my sister-in-law remembered, speaking of her friends' parents while growing up. "There were a whole variety of good ones and bad ones. Some pastry shops are known to have better than others."
Mr. Dessyn wasn't just proud of his Galette des Rois but also of the trinket or "lucky charm" that he hides inside. The $40 cake, which can serve eight to 10, comes with a traditional tiny, painted porcelain figurine—usually crèche figures such as a swaddled baby or an adoring king, according to my sister-in-law—but for $55 you can order one containing a solid silver windmill, Mille-feuille's symbol.
Traditionally, Mr. Dessyn told me, the prize goes to the youngest child at the table. In our family, that wouldn't be me but our daughter Gracie.
The baker put down a sheet of pastry, used a pastry bag to squirt concentric circles of almond paste in the middle of the sheet, and then sealed the whole deal with a top sheet of pastry. Finally, he carved decorative lines into the surface of the pastry and finished it off with an egg wash that, when it comes out of the oven about an hour later, lends the galette a lovely, golden brown color. (Since it is traditionally served warm, Mr. Dessyn suggests you return it to the oven for a few minutes before serving, or microwave it for 20 seconds.)
I hope I'm not giving anything away by revealing that he places the trinket closer to the outer edge of the cake than the center. "You don't put it in the middle because you slice it in the middle and you don't want to break the lucky charm at the first cut," he explained.
Makes sense to me.
Gracie was certain her mother was going to get the charm, considering her the luckiest member of our family. "My wife never got it since I met her," Mr. Dessyn volunteered. He said his oldest son has found it in his slice the last two years in a row.
That evening at our house neither Gracie nor Debbie, my wife, won the silver windmill. For that matter, neither did I. It went to Gracie's friend Nick, who chivalrously gave it to her.
And just to prove how lucky the charm was, she promptly lost it. But it materialized in the wash the next morning, wrapped inside the tablecloth, none the worse for wear.