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You see them, boxed and piled high at New Orleans supermarkets, bakeries, corner stores, and filling stations: Your typical king cake—a ring of brioche dough splotched with extraordinarily lurid icing, the kind that parks you on a jagged sugar high for days. But in some households, you’ll see something far less common, a galette des rois, a Twelfth Night tradition in France since the Middle Ages.

It’s one of my favorite desserts, and I could eat it all year long. First off, I love its looks: the restrained, geometric shape made joyous by pinwheels. It reminds me of the sun. It makes me want to turn cartwheels.

I also appreciate the accuracy of the name, galette des rois, “cake of kings,” plural. The Three Magi would approve.

And, lastly, you don’t have to be drunk to enjoy it. That’s my real problem with the brioche-style king cake—like bowling (where you put your feet into rented shoes), I have to toss back a few before I can let the good times roll.

Your first taste of a galette des rois, on the other hand, will be, well, an epiphany. It’s bronzed. Buttery. Flaky. Rich with good almond paste (not marzipan, which is too sweet).

Now, when you click through to the recipe above, you’ll see you need to make a “rough puff” dough—basically, a quick puff pastry. Even though it’s not difficult to make, I usually stick to biscuits and cornbread, and leave pastry to my husband, Sam, the dough pro.

But even quicker than rough puff is using store-bought frozen puff pastry.* Because the cake is constrained by the size of the pre-made puff pastry sheets, my rounds were an inch smaller than the diameter specified in the recipe. And even though I got distracted and didn’t really hear the buzzer go off, Sam yanked the cake out of the oven just in the nick of time. So what if one side is dark, not deep, golden brown? It will be absolutely delicious.

And almost as delicious is the prospect of being crowned king or queen for the day—that is, if someone at the table discovers a trinket nestled in his piece of cake. You could use an almond or a dried butter bean.

But I like to use the dear little baby Jesus that resides for the rest of the year in a porcelain dish on my bureau, along with Saint Anthony (patron of lost things), and other treasures.

Happy New Year! Turn cartwheels.

* I’m a big fan of that made by the Bronx-based Dufour Pastry Kitchens. It’s an all-butter dough (i.e., no nasty trans fats), and, happily, it’s becoming more available nationwide. Look for it in the freezer section of high-end supermarkets such as Whole Foods.


Comment from Bill Smith
Time January 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm

I read your entry on the Three Kings cake for Epiphany. I bought several of them from the neighborhood Latino store for my staff. These were rings of sweetened yeast bread with the most fantastic candied fruits used as decorations. In Mexico these are called “roscas”.

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