Monday, January 08, 2007

Of Kings and Cakes...and Beans?!

Bonne Année tout le monde! (Happy New Year to everyone!)

With a load of various conjugated French verbs still dancing in my head (I can vaguely remember when it used to be sugar plums!), I am enjoying the New Year with its promise and potential. What a difference a year makes! I am surviving winter (an easy thing to do when the temps are more spring-like than anything resembling the winters just passed), I am settled into my very sweet little nest (and have even managed to enjoy that lovely courtyard on a few winter days), I am actually understanding conversations I overhear in the street (one such conversation between two young men who were commenting on the rip in the knee of my jeans should have made me blush or sent me into an indignant rage instead of the private celebratory
“Yesssss!” that I whispered to myself after passing them…and just for the record: that response was related to my ability to understand everything they said and NOT to the content of their exchange!), and I can now have a bit of a chat with the check out people in stores without breaking into a cold sweat and looking like a deer caught in headlights. Yes, things are definitely looking up and I think I’m going to like living on this planet!

On those occasions when I’ve initiated arguments in my head with sarcastic provocations like: “Exactly whose idea was it to enroll in a full-time university program?!?!” it is most satisfying to begin decoding my surroundings and actually forming words that I can string together and have tumble out as fully developed strands of French that are actually received and understood on the other side. Those moments serve to motivate me to put my arms around this lovely language even more and break out of my awkward miming stance to actually join in on the collective conversation. Yay me! (Although I was humbled the other day by another student in my class who was very pleased to have understood an entire enclosure of intricate explanations for a medication she had been prescribed...while I, on the other hand, had recently felt a surge of pride for having understood - without having to translate in my head - a poster for a children’s puppet show. The fact that I actually tested into the highest intermediate level is still a mystery to me - especially when I measure differences like that!)

Needless to say, there hasn’t been a lot of cookin’ going on chez La Fourchette! As I was studying those aforementioned verb conjugations and writing exams for my photography and literature and Provençal fairy tales classes (which is far more psychologically/sociologically based than it sounds), I was aware of the rapid passage of an autumn and early winter of food-based adventures in my petite cuisine. The Beaujolais nouveau has arrived (and passed its prime), the 13 desserts have starred on many a Provençal table and the blé of Sainte Barbe has been sprouted to foretell a prosperous year (given my blé harvest, it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good year for La Fourchette!)

As I pass the seafood trays lined up at Les Deux Garçons, I'm reminded of the evening spent slurping up fresh briny oysters that smelled like the ocean, laughing and drinking champagne with friends.

There were Gregorian Chants in a little chapel in centre ville at midnight on Christmas eve followed by the Buches de Noël

that made their appearances to add a hint of woodsy charm to holiday tables after ducks and geese had been roasted to perfection and enjoyed with friends and family.

But at this point in our brand new year, it seems fitting that La Fourchette kicks off 2007 with a royal bang! ‘Tis the season of the Galette de Roi, or King Cake outside of my little French ‘hood. Every boulangerie in town has an array of Galette de Roi in their windows and when I went to dinner at the home of friends the other evening, their cat greeted me wearing a lovely gold crown...part of the tradition of the Gâteau de Roi…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dipping back into some local history, Aix en Provence was built on thermal sources by the Romans – in fact, I live in a building that was built on one of those ancient Roman sources - so there is quite a connection. Let’s bring them into mix to honor the roots of this place:

Story has it that in pagan times, the solstice celebration (honoring the Sun God) included a big party complete with a cake that had a token hidden within. The lucky person who found the token in the cake would be recognized as the leader of the tribe for the next year. (Yay!) I imagine there may have been a fair amount of hearty partying! But there was a twist to this honor: the following year, the leader of the tribe was sacrificed and his blood distributed in the fields to assure a good harvest. Next party starts at this point...there's another cake, another token...and, get the idea.

Fast forward to the late 3rd century during the rule of the Roman emperor, Aurelian. That ancient solstice feast had been taken over by the Romans still honoring the Sun God. The “official” birthday of sol invictus (the Invincible Sun) was declared to fall on December 25 (which had been established as the winter solstice during Julius Caesar’s reign). It didn’t take long for the Church to take this day for its own as they raided the territory and seized everything they could get their hands on – apparently holidays were included in the booty.

A century later, St. Augustine would romanticize and embellish the story of the Epiphany to include the Three Wise Men who visited an infant Jesus in Bethlehem on the 12th day following his birth (it just so happened that he shared a birthday with the Invincible Sun). The kings named Melchior, Gaspard et Balthazar, represented mulitple ethnic origins et regions. This 12th day would be established by the Church to celebrate the revelation of the divinity of the Christ to mankind. The visit of the kings bearing gifts would give the holiday its royal associations (and who among us doesn’t appreciate a royal connection now and again, really?!)

As time passed, gifts were given to children to commemorate the gifts given by the kings to the infant in Bethlehem. The great houses of Europe brought a new sense of glitter and glam to the holiday by featuring magicians, acrobats, jugglers and other entertainers.

Although there are variations on this theme throughout all of the European cultures, the common thread that exists is the “cake and king” connection. In France, the Galette de Roi is used to celebrate the coming of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts 12 days after Christmas. Now known as the Feast of Epiphany or 12th Night, the special treat is a French-style pastry filled with frangipane (a paste made from almonds, eggs, butter and sugar). Hidden inside is a charm and/or a bean.

The person who finds the charm in their piece of cake is determined to be the "king" for the night. The king is crowned (yes, these cakes come complete with crowns!) and depending on the group, the king is either in charge of providing the next party, the next cake (for instance, for the office), is stuck paying the bill for the current celebration, or gets to call the toasts and lead the drinking. In just about all cases, the cake and king are linked as good luck omens for the year ahead. The cake and the bean became symbols of fertility and harvest, health and prosperity. Cool huh?! (And nobody is sacrificed after his or her reign these days. We've come a long way!) And what about the dried bean also hidden within each cake? Well, she's the queen. (Okay, so maybe we haven't come as far as I thought!?)

These mock kings (and their queens) have been reigning over the winter holiday season’s festivities in Europe for centuries, from way back in the day when they ruled over the feasts honoring the pagan solstice celebrations.

Wanting to join in on the festivities (as well as provide La Fourchette with a bit of sustenance!), my little Galette de Roi came from the boulangerie just across the street from me. (In fact, I just learned that this boulangerie is called "La Madeleine" from the card that accompanied it. Everyone I know refers to it as "The-Boulangerie-Across-The-Street-From-You"!)

The first hidden treasure found: the bean. Queen for a Day!

And then, as I was enjoying a little slice with my breakfast tea, I bit into a small bearded character peeking out from under that lovely layer of almond paste. (I've taken this as a good sign of what's ahead in the new year!) Climbing out from the frangipane, he introduced himself as Gaspard and having had a chance to clean up, he's not half bad. He's taken up residence at the base of the pot of hyacinths that are dressing up my desk.

These cakes are a part of gatherings among friends and family throughout the month of January. My first was enjoyed with friends (and their royal cat!) last week. The next one for me will be shared with another set of friends who have just arrived from Toronto and will be coming in for dinner this weekend. (We'll have to see if Gaspar ends up with any room-mates as the season progresses.)

And in keeping with the tradition at La Fourchette, you'll find a recipe for Galette de Roi at the end of the post. I've not tried this at home...and will probably continue to find may way to a boulangerie somewhere nearby. But just in case you are wanting to give it a whirl...

By the way, I found this rather charming little verse that goes along with the season. I’ve gotta say, a country that has cheery little songs written in honor of butter is the right place for my soul!

J'aime la galette**,
Savez-vous comment ?
Quand elle bien faite
Avec du beurre dedans.
Trala la la la la la la lère,
Tra la la la la la la la la,
Tra la la la la la la la lère,
Tra la la la la la la la la.


I like cake.
Do you know how?
When it is well done
With butter inside.
Tra la….blah, blah, blah….(It loses something in the translation, but you've gotta love that “butter” line, huh?!)

In the meantime, The Bean, Gaspar and I wish all of you a Bonne Année and send you all good wishes in the new year. Fill it with promise...and hope.
(Aww go ahead: fill it with butter!)

Bon Appétit!

** A petite detail: Apparently, the galette version of the puff pastry filled with almond paste is from the north. Here in the south, we see that as well as the gâteau version of a brioche ring topped with red and green candied fruit and sugar. Either way you slice it, it's a seasonal celebration I'll be looking forward to annually!

La Galette des Rois

Puff Pastry Tart filled with Almond cream.

1/4 cup almond paste
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
pinch of salt
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 Tablespoons flour
1 package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed according to package
1 dried bean (lima or kidney beans work well)
1 “king” charm or a second bean
2 teaspoons confectioners' sugar


Preheat oven to 450°F. Butter large baking sheet (not dark metal).

1. In a food processor, purée the almond paste, sugar, butter and pinch of salt until smooth.

2. Add 1 egg, vanilla and almond extracts and purée until incorporated.

3. Add the flour and pulse to mix it in.

4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one sheet of the puff pastry into an 11-1/2 inch square.

5. Invert an 11-inch pie plate onto the square and cut out a round shape by tracing the outline of the pie plate with the tip of a paring knife.

6. Brush the flour from both sides of the round and place it on the buttered baking sheet. Put in the refrigerator to chill.

7. Repeat the procedure with the second square of puff pastry, but leave it on the floured work surface.

8. Beat the remaining egg and brush some of it on top of the second round. Score decoratively all over the top using the tip of a paring knife and make several small slits all the way through the pastry to create steam vents.

9. Remove the first sheet from the refrigerator and brush some of the egg in a 1-inch border around the edge. Mound the almond cream in the center, spreading slightly.

10. Bury the beans in the almond cream. Place the scored round on top and press the edges together.

11. Bake the galette in the lower third of the oven for 13 to 15 minutes, until puffed and golden. Remove from oven and dust with the confectioners' sugar.

12. Place oven rack in the upper third of the oven and return galette to cook for an additional 12 to 15 minutes or until the edge is a deep golden brown. Transfer to a rack to cool sligthly.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Leslie, what a delightful blog!

I stumbled across it today as I sit here in Sydney, Australia, doing a bit of research on Gallettes des Rois for my website about Paris.

I was pleased to see you live in Provence, and that you took the giant step. I lived in Paris many moons ago and have been hankering after her ever since, so I've started a website which will satisfy my cravings ... for the moment :-)

I've read your first post and this post, and you sound like a lovely person, mixing your photography and cooking skills, with a new life in France - what an adventure!

I wish you all the very best for a faaabulous 2008!


la fourchette said...

Teena, thanks for your kind words and wishes. And best of luck with your's a great resource for "all things Paris", by all means! Thanks for stopping in chez La Fourchette - even if it was by way of a stumble!

Bon appétit,

Anonymous said...

Hi Leslie,

Just popped back to see what you've been up to :-)

I love that little pear shaped Le Creuset Pear Casserole on this page, gorgeous!

I was just reading about your stumblings with the French language and you took me hurtling back through space and time to when I finally started trying to speak French. I used to use the, "I've just had my horses cut!" on purpose, to give my French workmates something to be perplexed over - naughty me.

I loved all your slip-ups, I remember when I first arrived in Paris I used to buy the International Herald Tribune from my local shop, and the woman asked me the same question every day.

I didn't have the faintest what she was saying and always felt desolee, except I didn't know how to say that :-)

I attended a French school for a month, 4 hrs a day, and couldn't wait to go and speak to this lovely woman when I finally learnt what she was asking me - and she was delighted I could finally speak a few words.

Thanks for your great blog, I love your recipes and wish I had the courage to try them.

I'll be in Paris for June, teaching silk painting classes - I can't wait!

currently living in Australia, but change and adventure are inevitable - luckily :-)

Susie Bates said...

Hi Leslie! i sstumbled on your blog while helping my daughter write an entry for our blog about Le Galette du Roi, epiphany and all that jazz!
Don't know if you remember me, but we met on the Cours one day when I was with Shelley.
Loved reading and finding your bolg and will look forward to that cup of coffee with Shelley when she returns!
a bientot,
Susie Bates

la fourchette said...

Small world, this place called Aix! Thanks for stopping in! I'll look forward to that coffee 'ensemble'...Leslie

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