I am sorry, NOLA, but I was so disappointed when I saw what New Orleanians call a King Cake (or Kings Cake, or King’s Cake). My first thought: it was a perfectly nice yeast bread hopped up on sugar and decorated by a kindergarten Jackson Pollock.
To be fair to New Orleans, my expectations had been set high. I had my first taste of the French Kings Cake - Galette des Rois - in Paris one Twelfth Night many years ago.
That galette, purchased from a minuscule bakery in the Marais, set the gold standard. That was a Kings Cake to remember.
Looking at the two different cakes, they aren't even remotely similar, starting with the timing. The galette in France is served for the feast of the Epiphany or through the twelve days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany, while the King Cake in New Orleans is baked and eaten from the start of Epiphany through its end on Mardi Gras, the eve of the Lenten season.
One charming folk story has it that the galette was baked to woo the three kings (which explains why it is plural - kings cake and Galette des Rois) to visit the baby Jesus, thus the association of the cake with Epiphany, the January 6 holy day that commemorates the Magi’s adoration of the infant Jesus.
Who knows what baked goods the three kings might have encountered two millennia ago, but, happily, the French took matters in hand, and gave us an exquisite tradition of a buttery puffed pastry filled with frangipane.
By contrast, the kings of the New Orleans Mardi Gras get an eggy yeast bread, glopped with sugary green, purple, and yellow icing further topped with sugar sprinkles in the same lurid colors. A note from Markipedia: The Rex Krewe chose these as their colors in the late 19th century, and somewhere along the way the colors were endowed with the symbolism of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
The one common factor between the French and New Orleanian kings cakes is the fève. Hidden in both cakes is a charm - a tiny doll, a coin, or a dried bean (fève).
ève is meant to represent the baby Jesus. Often a tiny doll, in modern day France the fève can even be a cartoon character (I have seem hundreds of Astérix characters for sale online!). I found the fèves pictured above at Maiden France Vintage, owned by Stephanie Hill.
If you are the lucky one who gets the fève in your slice of Galette des Rois, your head is crowned (a paper crown!) and you are also expected to buy (or make) the next year’s cake.
If you get the fève in NOLA, it is your job to throw the next party. Depending on the situation, that could be as soon as that same evening, the next night, a few days hence, or the following year.
For this Galette des Rois, I made my own puff pastry (recipe below) but you can use store-bought, all-butter puff pastry with wonderful results.
The frangipane filling is what makes this galette so special for me - the combination of the almond, vanilla and lemon extracts is perfect.
A Galette des Rois is a spectacular dessert, and not terribly difficult to make. And you will have such fun searching for the perfect fève to hide inside!
Galette des Rois
1 pound pure butter puff pastry (recipe follows)
1 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon lemon extract
1 fève– a dried fava bean (fève), ceramic or glass toy doll, etc.
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon milk
Preheat oven to 375°F
Combine the almonds, sugar, butter, whole egg, and extracts in the food processor. This is the frangipane; it should be the consistency of a thick paste.
Divide the pastry into two pieces. Roll out each piece of pastry and cut into a circle about 10 inches wide and 1/8-inch thick (use a plate or cake pan as your template, being careful not to press down on the dough. Place both circles of dough on parchment and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Put one circle of pastry (and its parchment) on baking tray and spread the frangipane evenly, leaving a 3/4-inch border. Press the trinket into the paste and cover with frangipane. Using a pastry brush, “paint” the 3/4-inch border with water.
Place the second sheet on top and press the two pieces together around the edge, sealing completely as you go, then crimp the edges decoratively as you would a pie. (It is very important to seal the pastry well before crimping, otherwise the filling will ooze out.)
Mix the egg yolk with the milk and brush the entire top of the galette with this mixture, being careful that it stays on top and doesn’t touch any of the sides. (It might keep the sides from puffing up.) Using a very sharp knife, decorate the top of the galette with patterns of slashes, being careful not to go all the way through to the frangipane.
Bake on bottom rack for about 30 minutes, but keep an eye on it. It should be golden with tinges of brown. Serve warm.
Quick Puff Pastry
2 1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1 teaspoons salt
1 pound cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup ice water
Put flours and salt in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse a few times to mix. Scatter butter on top of flour, and using on/off button, pulse until butter is the size of lima beans, no smaller than peas. Add almost all of the ice water and 12-15 times. If it’s too dry add the rest of the water and pulse until the dough almost comes together. Don´t let it form a ball of dough; don't over process.
Dump out the dough onto a generously floured work surface and pat it into an 8-inch square. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a rectangle, about 8-inches by 15- to 18-inches. (This will look like an absolute mess in the beginning! Don't worry - it will come together!) Flour the dough and rolling pin as needed to prevent sticking.
Make the first turn: with the aid of a dough scraper, lift one third of the dough, and flip it down onto the middle third. Do the same starting from the bottom with the remaining third of dough. (People describe this as a business letter fold.) Turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise, so that the short side is parallel to the working surface and the long side with the opening is on your right side. Repeat the rolling into a rectangle, the folding in three and turn to the right another three times for a total of four times.
Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Repeat the rolling, folding, and turning of the dough two more times, for a total will be six turns.
The pastry needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 more hour before using it.
Makes 2 pounds.