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On January 6, France celebrated Epiphany. Like most of the holidays in France, this is a Catholic festival or day of feast; this particular one in honor of God’s son coming to us in human form as Jesus. Other religions celebrate the holiday on the first Sunday after the New Year. In France, as ordained by the Vatican, Epiphany falls on January 6 of each year.

Almost all French people celebrate the holiday with a Galette, an almond-paste filled pie-cake, whether or not they are practicing Catholics. Even if you are not particularly religious yourself, the tradition and the history surrounding this holiday in France are interesting and quite adorable.

As to the cultural aspects, what is rather striking about this holiday is how it exemplifies the extent to which France as a country remains Catholic at its heart. Technically after the 1789 Revolution and as a consequence of the consecutive Républiques, France is supposed to be a laïque, a French term defining the separation of Church and State. In practice, however, other than May 1, French Labor Day or la Fête de Travail, practically all the holidays in France are Catholic celebrations. France continues to be a Catholic country, regardless of the politics. We could argue about the appropriateness of this all day long, but what I appreciate is the tradition and cohesion such traditions bring to a society.

As a non-Catholic, I came to France with an understanding of the country’s history and a vague conception of its religious affiliations. What I did not know was how embedded the State and Church remain. Having married into an ancient French Catholic family, I now have a front row seat to such intricacies and how they play out among the backdrop of centuries of family history. Of course with the Presidential Elections coming up in France this year, as in the States, such issues are becoming more and more poignant.

But when French children scurry under the table to decide who will get which part of the Galette des Rois, a custom ensuring that the fève (the little trinket baked into the cake) is fairly distributed so that each participant has a fair chance of receiving the trinket, they aren’t thinking of revolutions, the politics of Church and State or multiculturalism. They are thinking about family and cake and being King or Queen for the day.

French tradition states that whoever receives the fève in his/her part of the Galette gets to wear the crown, keep the fève, and choose and crown his or her queen/king consort.

My very first experience with a Galette des Rois was during my second year here in France when my husband, then boyfriend, came home one evening after work with a funny looking pie of sorts in his hands. He told me to close my eyes (adults feel themselves to be a little too dignified to crawl under the table) while he cut the pie into pieces and I called out which piece was for who. Somehow, almost as if it was planned, that year and every year since I have discovered the fève lodged into my piece of the galete.

Les fèves are an interesting tradition themselves. Over the years, my mother-in-law has accumulated quite a collection. This weekend she explained their history to me.   At the beginning, the fève was a white kidney bean baked into the pastry. The tradition goes that whoever gets the trinket in their piece has to offer the galette the next year. Some rather parsimonious people used to swallow the bean so that they wouldn’t be responsible for returning the generosity. In later years, when my 97 year old great grand mother-in-law was young, the fèves were a small ceramic baby Jesus; for the next generation they turned into white porcelain figures of a grown Jesus. By the time my husband’s generation came along, the fèves had turned into religious trinkets of all kinds. Nowadays, for my little nieces and nephews, the religious symbolism is shared with tiny colorful porcelain trucks and trains and dolls.

My belle-family reunited this weekend, although a week late, to celebrate the Epiphany and the Galette tradition altogether. The one difference this year is that I tried my hand at making the Galette (two even).

As a pastry, Galette is a simple recipe. You start by making your pastry dough (the most complicated part which I’ll do a separate post and video on) and mold it into two 30 cm circles, thin as pie crust (or you can buy the crusts – it’s pâte feuilletée, the same as a quiche pastry). Then you whip sugar, butter and almond powder together in a mixer. Once the mixture has the consistency of paste, about three minutes later, spread your almond filling onto one pâte, then plant your fève and cover with a second pâte, pinching the two crusts together along the edge. Paint an egg yolk over the top of the pastry to brown. Put the galette in the oven for 30 minutes at 210ºc (410F). You want it to be nicely brown on the top.

Some people like to add peeled and thinly sliced pears or apples to their galette when serving it as a dessert rather than a Galette des Rois for Epiphany. I’m fairly confident that replacing the almond powder with cocoa powder (chocolate) would be delicious too, although I have not yet tried it.

If you are in Paris and you prefer to buy the Galette ready-made, here are some of the best pastry shops for their Galette:

  • Arnaud Delmontel, 39 rue des Martyrs, 75009 Paris and 57 rue Damrémont, 75018 Paris
  • Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris
  • Gérard Mulot, 76, rue de Seine 75006 Paris

Now for my family’s Galette des Rois recipe:

If you want to make your pastry dough, you’ll need (preparation instruction to come in a post of their own): (quantities for 1 pâte, you’ll need two for a galette)

  • 250g flour (2cups)
  • 5g de fine salt (1.5 tsp)
  • 185g softened butter (1/4 lb stick)

For almond paste filling:

  • 100g de almond powder/ grounded almonds (7/8 cup)
  • 75g sugar (2/3 cup)
  • 1 egg
  • 50g soft butter (3.5 tbsp or 1.8oz)
  • 1 egg yolk for browning pastry

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Start by spreading your first pastry dough in a 25cm (9 or 12 inches) pie/tart pan. Poke holes in pastry dough with fork so that it doesn’t explode. Whip sugar, butter, egg and almond powder together in a mixer. Once a paste consistency, about three minutes later, spread your almond paste onto the pie crust. Plant your fève and cover with a second crust. Pinch the two crusts together along the edge and fold then over. Paint an egg yolk over the top of the pastry to brown. Decorate with a knife by drawing lightly onto the pastry. Put the galette in the oven for 30 minutes at 210°c (410F).

Bonne dégustation !