A French 12th Night: Galette des Rois


OK. Well let me admit right from the start – it was actually a 9th night cake! When I bought this yesterday from Paul Bakery in Richmond and posted a photo to Twitter saying it was for ‘tonight’s family supper’, someone replied, but isn’t it meant to be for Epiphany? Frankly, I could easily eat them all twelve days of Christmas; why save them for Twelfth Night when they’re looking out at me tantalisingly from Paul’s window every time I walk past – which is at least once a day.

Galette des Rois in Paul Bakery's window, Richmond
Galette des Rois in Paul Bakery’s window, Richmond

And then they’re gone … I have to wait another year for them to come back! And while that’s slightly sad, it’s also great. There’s nothing like eating a good food in the right season and while you could, of course, make a Galette des Rois any time of the year (even if you can’t buy one from Paul), it just wouldn’t be the same.

And no, I didn’t make my galette. The French never apologise for buying a wonderful pastry from the local patisserie. It’s normal. Just as they go out to buy fresh croissants in the morning and would never dream of making their own. Just as they pop along to the local charcuterie to buy wonderful meats and patés. Yes it’s fun to make your own things sometimes but at other times, just make life easy for yourself. And when it comes to Galette des Rois (kings’ tart), then I’m more than happy to leave it to Paul (who by the way are not paying me to write this; I really do love their goods!).

While Italy dominates my family’s Christmas breakfast with panettone and pandoro, we turn to France for Twelfth Night. It was our lovely au pair, Stephanié, who, more than 20 years ago, introduced us to this French custom when she brought a Galette des Rois back from France after going home for Christmas. She told us about the trinket inside – nowadays a porcelain trinket, but once a bean – and that whoever found the lucky charm in their slice of galette would be crowned ‘king’ for the day, and thus the cake always comes with a paper golden crown to put on the lucky person’s head. Traditionally in France the galette is cut into slices according to the number sitting around the table, but an extra slice is kept to be given to the first poor person who passes by.

The galette has a long history; some say it even goes back to the days of the Romans when they celebrated Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a Roman festival to celebrate the god of agriculture and held at the end of December through to the beginning of January. During this festival roles were reversed and masters served the slaves and one slave become ‘king’ for the day. But there is also a link to the Magi – the arrival of the three wise men (kings) – to see the newborn Jesus, and thus it becomes a Twelfth Night cake – the night before Epiphany when the kings arrived with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The traditional galette – a Galette de Pithiviers – is mostly found in northern France and made from a rich buttery, flaky pastry filled with almond frangipane. South of the Loire, the cake is more often made with a yeast dough (source: New Larousse Gastronomique) in the shape of a crown. In the south of France you’ll find Gateau des Rois, which is a crown-shaped brioche filled with candied fruits, more akin to Italian panettone than its northern French cousin.

With Twelfth Night coming on a Monday this year, we decided to celebrate early over the weekend with our Galette des Rois, hence buying it yesterday. With a French dessert, I wanted to make the rest of the meal French too; it always feel harmonious to me to make the whole meal along the same theme. I also decided to embrace the French idea of buying good charcuterie and putting together a ‘starter’ rather than making anything. French saucission was bought and some cornichons to go with it. In French mode, I thought about crudités and making some aioli to go with them. But then I remembered that I shouldn’t, for Lyndsey is expecting her and Jonathan’s first child at the beginning of March and raw egg is not a food for pregnant daughters-in-law! I instead made some ‘Lyndsey friendly’ butter bean dip and cut up slices of cucumber, carrot and sweet pepper to go with it.


It was very quick: a small (115g) tin of butter beans, drained into a bowl; a heaped dessertspoon of tahini, a crushed garlic clove, a few drops of Tabasco, salt and pepper and a good amount of extra virgin olive oil, judged by adding until I got the right consistency. It was all whisked together with a hand blender and within a few short minutes – voilà! – a gorgeous bowl of tasty dip. Some more oil and a shake of paprika over the top finished it.


I added a bowl of olives and some roasted almonds to the collection and one of Paul’s flutes of bread, to which I am hugely addicted. We ate our hors d’oeuvres with glasses of champagne. Serving champagne is another French tradition with a Twelfth Night meal – not that we’re short of excuses for opening a bottle of fizz in this house!


Earlier in the day I’d made a large casserole of beef in red wine – you might say Boeuf Bourguignon, although I wasn’t sticking to any strict Burgundian rules and simply put the obvious together: big chunks of braising steak, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, herbes de Provence, seasoning and about half a bottle of good red wine. I think it benefits from being made earlier in the day and then you need just a gentle reheating at suppertime. I served French beans and a mix of sweet potato and ‘ordinary’ potato mash with it. Then it was time for The Galette!


I heated it in the oven for about 10 mins because I like it warm. I’ve served it with homemade brandy ice cream before but my ice-cream maker is at my daughter’s in Birmingham (lent for her to make clementine sorbet at Christmas) so I’d bought some gorgeous thick clotted Cornish cream instead to go with it.


Jonathan got the lucky charm in the first piece of his slice! (I got strict instructions from Paul to tell everyone to be careful eating the cake.) Jonathan wore the crown but was reluctant to go global via my blog wearing a paper crown, so rather than a photo of him, here is Zeph wearing last year’s!


It was all very delicious. I just love the buttery, almond-y galette. This is not a time to worry about calories or eating butter (not that I ever worry about eating butter and consider it far healthier than nasty margarine). This is a time to indulge and save the healthy thoughts, if you must have them, for next week. The remaining half of the galette was divided for Jonathan and Lyndsey to take some home. Zeph preferred cheese – one of his favourite treats – so went home with a slice of Emmenthal.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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