"Now listen up, I don't want any of you suing me when the night is over" Marie-Monique Steckel, President of the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) says to large room of people standing in clumps, holding wine glasses and plates with remnants of cheese and crusts of bread. In celebration of le nouvelle an, the New Year, with a Galette des Rois celebration. The room listens warmly to President Steckel, and when she jokes about a the suing culture in America everyone laughs. It turns out that there are ceramic figures hidden inside of the cakes, so it's best to feel it out with your fork before taking a huge bite!
FIAF is an epicenter for all things French in New York City. There are language classes, events honoring french artists, singers, traditions and more. When I first walked into the celebration, I noticed that there were many different people in attendance: young and old, single and with friends, students and teachers, native French speakers and those practicing. They crowded around tables with wine and delicious tastings of cheese, fresh bread, figs, an array of meats and more. The atmosphere was wonderfully communal and even as a stranger, I was invited into many different conversations throughout the evening.
After President Steckel's welcome, the room applauded and rushed to form a line in front of the cakes. I, too, hoped in line and at the front realized that there are two different cakes: Galette des Rois and Brioche des Rois. While both are shaped in a circle to emulate the crown, the Galette des Rois is similar to a freshly baked pastry while the Brioche des Roise has more of a bread-like texture.
Galette des Rois translates literally to "King's Cake" (although both kinds of cake are known as King's cake). It's a flakey puff pastry filled with frangipane, a paste made with almonds. With each bite you get the perfect combination of buttery puff pastry and sweet creamy filling.
The other cake is called a Brioche des Rois. It originated in the South of France as part of the same tradition. This cake is made with raisins, candied fruits and orange blossom water to give it a sweet flavor. Pearl sugar and candied fruits are used as decorations on top and are the final touches to turn the cake into a crown with jewel-like toppings.
The cakes, dating back to the middle ages, have a small, porcelain charm, or féve, hidden inside. As tradition goes, whoever finds the charm in their slice of cake is crowned the king or queen for the day! Some traditions even say that they must provide the cake for next year's celebration.
While I did not get the crown, I was fortunate to learn a new tradition, meet new friends and try not one, but two sweet, fresh baked cakes.