Visitors to Paris at this time of year—particularly those who pop into Parisian patisseries or even grocery stores like Franprix, Monoprix or Carrefour—will undoubtedly see a seasonal dessert for sale that is unique to Europe: Galette des Rois.
Translated as the “Cake of Kings,” this circular (or, less often, rectangular) cake celebrates Epiphany, the Biblical story of the arrival of the three wise men /magi to the newly born Christ child. This holiday is celebrated on January 6 each year–12 days after Christmas, marking the end of the traditional “12 Days of Christmas” as immortalized in the classic holiday song).
For many Christian religions, including Catholicism, which is the most widely practiced faith in France, Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his son, Jesus. The arrival of the magi in the Bible story is the first moment that the Earth’s peoples recognize and worship the newborn as the son of God.
The Galette des Rois takes its name from the three Biblical kings who first visited Jesus. The cake actually comes in two forms in France: In the north, including Paris, it’s a round or rectangular cinnamon-flavored confection of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane. In southern France, it’s typically a crown-shaped brioche filled and decorated with candied fruits and sugar.
Traditionally, a Galette des Rois includes a small plastic baby doll, which represents the Baby Jesus, baked inside. This surprise is called “la feve (the bean),” honoring the earliest traditions from centuries ago where the hidden item in the cake was literally a fava bean. In the late 1800s, the bean was replaced by a porcelain figurine, and in the 20th century that gave way to plastic dolls. As of late, many of the pre-made Galettes des Rois sold in France have the doll “on the side,” allowing the host/hostess to hide it in the cake or—as is increasingly the case, particularly with cakes eaten on dates other than Epiphany itself—leave it out entirely.
The person who gets the piece of cake with the baby inside is declared the “king of the feast.” Often, the Galette des Rois comes with a paper crown that is placed on the head of the “king of the feast.” The lucky finder of the small doll also is responsible for baking or buying the Galette des Rois for the next year’s celebration.
In recent times, particularly as France becomes more and more secular, the Baby Jesus doll has been replaced by other small figurines that can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character, and these are hidden in the cakes. Many of Paris’s top patisseries introduce a new figurine for their Galettes de Rois each year, and these baubles have become highly sought-after collectibles.
Although the Galette des Rois is historically eaten on Epiphany in early January, the cake is commonly sold throughout the Christmas season in Paris, with mass-produced cakes available for purchase in the city’s grocery stores as early as late November.
And one final bit of trivia: Etiquette prohibits France’s president from celebrating the “royal” nature of Epiphany and its link to the three kings/magi, and so the Galette des Rois served each January at Paris’s Elysee Palace, the home of the nation’s president, does not include the hidden figurine or the paper crown.