The French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said, “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.” And as we rejoice in December’s glee, and look forward to the blissful unfolding of Spring, let’s take pause to celebrate Winter. A season typically stigmatised by frugality, but when you take a moment and look hard enough, it’s in fact dotted with hidden luxury.
This month, Pastry Chef extraordinaire Cissy Difford shares all you need to know about Galette Des Rois. It’s one of my all-time favorite French pastries traditional to this time of year. Lush almond frangipane encased in golden crisp puff pastry. It’s decadent, easy to make, and certainly worthy of an occasion. I have fond memories of my siblings and I, trotting down to the bakery in our little village in France to pick up a couple of baguettes and a Galette for Sunday lunch (we’d usually pick up a cream-filled beignet also, sharing it on the walk home before my mother noticed). – Cúán Greene.
After such a long month of overindulgence, you might think that when the New Year comes around, so do the diets and health cleanses. Well, think again, as technically speaking the Christmas period doesn’t officially end until Epiphany (the 6th January). On this day in France, the infamous Galette des Rois (King Cake) is served to celebrate this Twelfth Night. Inside this cake a ‘fève’ (bean), or nowadays a figurine, is hidden within and whoever finds it is named ‘le roi’ (the King) or ‘la reine’ (the Queen) for the day. In Northern France, this dessert is made by filling discs of puff pastry with a rich, buttery almond filling, similar to frangipane. Whereas in the south, the cake is a brioche style bread, shaped like a crown and covered in candied fruit.
Being such a distinct tradition, I thought I’d delve into its origins for a hot sec. Well, it seems to have stemmed from an ancient Roman pagan festival held in honour of the agricultural god Saturn. Occurring at the end of December and into early January, the winter festival of Saturnalia celebrated the promise of a successful spring harvest. Most importantly however, this celebration saw the relaxation and inversion of social norms. In particular, gambling was acceptable and slaves and masters were allowed to dine together, and even switched roles. During the festival feasts, a bean was concealed inside a cake (see it’s all coming together now!) and whoever found it was named Lord of Misrule and they were to lead the debauchery and drinking.
Over the centuries, we see the pagan tradition rebranded to fit Christian themes. The 6th day (or Epiphany) now symbolises when the Three Kings are said to have reached Bethlehem, where they recognised baby Jesus as the son of God. As this has evolved, so has the Twelfth night cake. Governed by the lack of chemical raising agents, we see early Tudor cakes leavened with yeast, creating sweet breads like panettone, until the early 18th century when whipped eggs were discovered as an alternative raising agent, making for a much richer fruit cake. Both undoubtedly gave these cakes their distinctive domed tops. This is shown in the earliest printed recipe which calls for: ‘Seven pounds of flour, [with] a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk […] When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them.’
In Britain and Ireland, this tradition of topsy-turvy festivities and cake sadly died out in the late 19th century. The Twelfth night cake transformed into the Christmas cake and the hidden bean transformed into a silver sixpence in the Christmas Pudding. However, in other countries the tradition still exists, as we’ve already noted with the French Galette des Rois, but also the Roscón de Rayes in Spain and King Cake in the Southern states of America.
So now we know where this delicious dessert comes from, it’s time we get down to making it. We’re solely going to be dissecting the Galette des Rois, from the paté feuilletée (puff pastry) to the almond centre.
Puff pastry is a simple dough consisting of very few ingredients; flour, butter, salt, water and vinegar. The distinct layers infamous to this flaky pastry are created by repeatedly folding alternate layers of fat and dough together, by the process known as laminating. On average the amount of butter encased in the dough is equal to half the dough weight, for example, 500g dough = 250g butter. When this pastry hits the oven, pockets of steam are released from the water in the dough and the butter. This causes the layers to separate and rise.
Since its first invention, which is said to be around 1645, puff pastry has evolved from being a highly intricate, elite recipe only made by the most renowned boulangeries to one that can be bought ready rolled and frozen from the supermarket. It also comes in sister forms: rough puff and invert puff.
As mentioned earlier, making puff pastry involves folding alternate layers of butter and dough together. In pastry, we use specific language to describe certain steps of this process. Firstly, as previously mentioned, this folding process is called lamination. Secondly, when we incorporate our butter block into our dough we call this ‘locking in’ – it looks as if the dough is giving the butter block a hug. Thirdly, we have different types of folds. There is a single fold which is when we fold our dough into three equal sections and fold it up like a letter. Then there is double fold which is when we fold our dough into four quarters so it looks like an open book and then we fold it again to close the book. When we make puff pastry we need to create a total of 6 folds. We can use a combination of single and double folds. The number of folds is important because if there are too few folds, the butter will melt out of the dough. Wow, I’m exhausted just from reading that. It’s confusing, right! But oh, so worth it!
Not only this, our ingredients and their temperature play a vital role. Firstly we have our flour. This needs to provide us with an extensible, strong and flaky dough, something around 12% protein content. Side note, the protein percentage tells us how our flour is going to act. For example, strong flours with high protein contents are most suited to making bread because they can absorb more water and trap more Co2 which makes for a loaf with greater volume, a chewy texture and open crumb. Shout out to Gerry who, I’m sure, will be able to talk about this in much greater detail than me! For this pastry 12% is our sweet spot. It allows us to roll out our dough multiple times without it springing back but importantly, it also gives us that super flaky, melt in the mouth texture we are after. Recently, I’ve been playing around with using wholegrains like Emmer and Einkorn in my puff recipe. At high percentages, these flours totally disrupt the structure and texture of dough but give a delicious, nutty flavour. I’m still working on finding that happy medium and when I do I’ll be sure to deep dive into it!
Next, we need water. Without water, our flour will not be hydrated and will not form that gluten matrix. Salt is incorporated to provide flavour but also to tenderise the gluten. Vinegar also helps tenderise the dough but also helps oxidisation. Finally, butter. Butter brings the most flavour, mouth feel and hydration to the dough. It’s important to use a butter high in butterfat (around 82%) and of good quality, because when the dough is pretty much butter, you want it to taste good!
With galette des rois, we need two discs of puff pastry to encase a disc of frangipane, which is a creamy paste of almonds (I like toasted best), butter, eggs, sugar and salt (recipe below). Of course, you can switch this up and play around with alternative nuts but this is the traditional method. When assembling your galette it’s key to keep everything super super chilled so that the butter doesn’t start to melt. The fridge is your friend, ALWAYS! When you have your discs neatly sealed together, you can score it with a decorative pattern before egg washing and baking.
60g icing sugar
200g almond paste
200g ground almonds, toasted
- Using a stand mixer or stick blender, cream the butter, sugar and almond paste until pale and fluffy.
- Slowly add the eggs in three parts, scraping down the bowl as you go.
- Once incorporated, fold in the cornflour, almonds, amaretto and salt.
- Refrigerate before use (this is stable in the fridge for 1 week or can be frozen for up to 3 months).
Top tip: use room temperature ingredients to ensure the mixture doesn’t split or add 1 tbsp of weighed cornflour to butter and sugar before adding the eggs. Using toasted nuts will provide a more rich and flavorful product but they must be cool before adding to the mixture.
Words: Cissy Difford
Cissy Difford is a pastry chef. You can subscribe to monthly tales, fails and recipes – rollwithit.substack.com
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com