The 12th day of Christmas, Jan. 6, marks the day that the Three Wise Men reached Bethlehem to pay homage to the baby Jesus. It's known as the Feast of the Epiphany or, for us, the day we eat the Galette des Rois.
Every year in France, this cake represents the convergence of excitement and history in a culture that absolutely loves to celebrate both. The Fête des Rois, or Feast of Kings, is a national tradition that dates back to the 14th century, and like many things French, it's a beautiful and delicious one. Every shop in France begins preparations in December to make thousands of the Galette des Rois, or king's cake, as excitement mounts for much of the country's population, religious or not.
So, what is this dessert fit for kings? The beauty is in its subtle simplicity: two layers of puff pastry filled with almond frangipane. The galette is a remarkable, buttery puff pastry crisp that yields into soft crumbles of layers that surround an almond filling. This filling can transport the senses with rum, vanilla, pistachio, butter and almonds; the first bite of the year is enough to challenge all things held to be sacred.
The cakes are available in so many shapes and flavors that it is impossible to list all of the variations. There are regional varieties as well, but the traditions around how it is consumed are the same.
Every year on Jan. 6, families gather around, each person hoping to be the special one to find the fève, which is a lucky trinket hidden inside. Originally, the fève was a bean baked into the galette, but now there are thousands of varieties of these lucky charms (think of tokens from Monopoly or Clue) in shapes ranging from small loaves of bread and pastries to Snoopy and Chuck Taylors. People collect these their entire lives.
Tradition also has it that once the fève is baked into the galette, one must be careful to cut only the exact number of pieces for the people at the table, plus one. The extra is to be shared with a stranger or someone in need. (Or left for the Holy Spirit — it is a religious holiday, after all.)
People eat the cake together and carefully, knowing that whoever gets the magic slice that holds the fève will be king for the day and wear the crown.
Many times in January, I've experienced the good fortune to eat with some of the older pastry chefs of our generation — none more classic than Gabriel Paillasson, founder of the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, or the World Baking Cup. Chef Paillasson invited us into his lovely shop and shared a galette with such reverence that we felt as if we were entering his home. It was transcendental and confirmed that I was cursed, forever in love with the Galette des Rois.
John Kraus owns Rose Street Patisserie (171 N. Snelling Av., St. Paul) and Patisserie 46 (4552 Grand Av. S., Minneapolis) and will most definitely be having Galette des Rois available for the Epiphany — including two giant galettes for customers to sample.