For most of my life, I assumed the twelfth day of Christmas was Christmas itself. Surely the progression of gifts—from small to large birds, jewelry, and then live performances—started on December 14 and built towards a grand finale, on the grandest day I knew of, December 25.
My assumption was wrong—and it took a cake to teach me that. Galette des rois, which translates to “kings’ cake,” is a French dessert served for Epiphany, also known as the Twelfth Night of Christmas—which, it turns out, is twelve days after Christmas. On this day, the three wise men carried precious gifts to the newborn king, which I suppose is quite grand in the scheme of things. Today we celebrate it with a cake and a mock coronation.
Galette des rois is a round disk of puff pastry filled with rich frangipane and sealed with an elaborate fluted edge. The real treat is not the cake itself, but the fève, a small embossed token tucked inside. If your slice contains the token, you are crowned king at a dinner-table coronation. (If you’re concerned about inedible choking hazards in your baked goods, a piece of dried fruit or a nut will do.)
The key to a great galette des rois is great puff pastry. (I’ve written in length about the mechanics behind it, and this is a great excuse to try your hand at the classic technique.) Once you prepare your puff pastry, roll it out to ¼-inch thickness, and cut two nine-inch disks. If you have a nine-inch cake pan, use this as a guide, but resist the urge to cut the puff pastry with the edge of the cake pan! This will compress the layers at the edge, causing them to stick together. Instead, we want the layers to rise in the oven and fan out like book pages.
The filling of galette des rois is frangipane, which is made by folding almond cream with the mother-sauce-like custard called pastry cream, another fundamental technique discussed at length here. To make almond cream, grind untoasted almonds in a food processor, then mix them with soft butter, powdered sugar, and an egg. If you like to play fast and loose with French tradition, you can perfume your almond cream with vanilla beans, citrus zest, rose water, or spices, or swap the almond meal for hazelnuts or another ground-nut flour. Once prepared, fold the almond cream with the pudding-like pastry cream, and spread the frangipane over the bottom disk of puff pastry, leaving a two-inch border around the edges. Place the fève near the edge of the frangipane, so it’s less likely to interfere with slicing the cake.
Moisten the dough’s edges, place the second disk over the top, and press it against the bottom layer of pastry to seal it like a delicious, cream-filled Frisbee. The edge is often fluted, but can be left un-crimped; scoring an elaborate pattern into the top, however, is mandatory. To do this, brush egg wash on the surface of the pastry, and use the tip of a paring knife to etch a crosshatch pattern into the surface of the dough. When the cake bakes, the etching in the egg wash will show through, as the coating takes on more color than the exposed pastry.
If you want to make this cake any other time of year, you can omit the fève and tell everyone you made a pithivier, which is the same cake without the regal appointment of a domestic monarch and general grandeur of Epiphany.