Around this time of year (actually for the entire period between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday), residents of New Orleans go mad for King Cake. Imagine a dense, dinner plate-sized cinnamon bun injected full of gooey substances like cream cheese and chocolate pudding and loaded up with fistfuls of colored crystalized sugar and a dead baby. Well, not dead, but there is a small plastic baby embedded in the cake. I find most of them revolting. To the locals, this is heresy.
My first experience of the galette des rois (tr. cake of the kings) was a home-made galette served to me by French ex-pat friend. This delicacy, also associated traditionally with Twelfth Night, is a light, wonderful dessert made from puff pastry and almond cream. Hers was to die for, and I was hooked. The galette typically also hides a prize, historically a dry fava bean, nowadays a little porcelain figure is used. Whoever gets the slice with la fève is king (or queen) for the day.
Naturally, knowing this city’s history, I expected something of the same. When I saw my first New Orleanian King Cake therefore, I was disconcerted, and when I tasted it, I was appalled. Granted, it was made by a local grocery chain, but I’ve since had similar complaints about more “high-end” versions. How did the lovely, fluffy galette turning into a hyper-sweet, sludgy monstrosity? Turns out, it’s the difference between the north and the south. Of France.
I discovered that the puff pastry galette my friend made is the tradition in northern France. Near Provence, there is a variant called galette des rois briochée, which is made, as its name suggests, from a more bread-like brioche dough. The Provençal version, is sometimes topped with candied fruit and crystalized sugar. La fève is always hidden inside this variant as well. I’ve not had the briochée style galette myself, but the recipes I’ve seen don’t resemble the American King Cakes, either.
Mystery solved. Whoever started the king cake tradition in Nouveau Orleans had been from the Mediterranean-facing part of France. The prize, in a burst of Catholic fervor had morphed from a bean to the baby Jesus. The gooey filling seems to be an American addition dating from the 1970s.
Fortunately for me, there are a few bakeries where you can find the feathery northern galette, and I can honestly tell people I’ve had my King Cake for the season without having to suffer through the sugary mess most of them are eating. Go ahead, call me a snob. When it comes to pastry, it’s a sin I’ll admit readily.