Epiphany Galettes de Rois, Ancestors of Our Southern Mardi Gras King Cakes, Star at Etoile

Every morning during Epiphany, which begins in early January, Philippe Verpiand's parents would buy a galette des rois, or French king cake, which would be gobbled up by the following day.

"We call it frangipane in France," Verpiand, chef and owner of Étoile, explains about the cake's almond filling. "It's almond butter made with an equal amount of almond meal, egg and butter with a little flour. It's pretty flaky and light. You can taste the vanilla and a little bit of rum inside the cake. And that's it."

That's it for the filling, that is. The creamy, barely sweet almond paste is surrounded by layers of light-as-air puff pastry that Verpiand and his kitchen staff, which now includes pastry chef Jose Hernandez, make themselves. Verpiand says the puff pastry takes the longest to make, but the end result sure is worth it.

"It's a piece of France outside of France," says Verpiand.

During the month of January, every bakery in France has galettes de rois for sale, in honor of Three Kings Day. Because galettes de rois translates to "king's cake," many people (including myself) mistake the pastry for a French version of a Mardi Gras cake. You know, the garishly decorated brioche ring with a plastic (or metal) baby baked inside of it.

"No, it's not for Mardi Gras," Verpiand says. "It's for Epiphany. But I'm going to sell it through Mardi Gras to span the junction between January and then."

Yes, this year, for the first time since he's owned restaurants, Verpiand is selling traditional French galettes des rois for $28 at Étoile from now through Mardi Gras. Verpiand insists the two cakes (Epiphany and Mardi Gras) aren't related, but we did a little digging and found out they may just be distant cousins.

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The original king cakes were brought to the New World during the Colonial era, and they started out just as simple as the cake being sold at Étoile, though, Verpiand notes, in southern France the cakes tend to be more brioche-based than puff pastry-based. These are the versions that were adopted by folks in New Orleans and Mexico.

In the 19th century, a New Orleans social group called the Twelfth Night Revelers adopted the European custom of hiding dried beans in the cakes. Whoever found the bean would be the king or queen of the Mardi Gras celebration.

By the 1940s, Mardi Gras cakes were popular in New Orleans, and many people went to Donald Entringer's bakery, McKenzie's, to get their sweets, explains New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker. According to Tooker, a traveling salesman came through town hawking tiny porcelain dolls. He had too many of them, so he offered them to Entringer to use in his cakes. Today, the norm is plastic, because who has a bunch of porcelain baby dolls lying around?

When eating a Mardi Gras cake, the person who gets the slice with the plastic baby baked into it has to host the next year's Mardi Gras celebration. Or he or she gets good luck. Depends on who you talk to. The tradition of baking a baby into the cake (representative of baby Jesus) came from Europe--most likely France or Spain--where a dried bean was hidden inside. The person who got the bean also got certain obligations, depending upon what the group dictated.

In the French galette des rois, a dried fava bean (about one inch long) is baked into the cake. It's hard and fairly large, so you'll know it if you find it. In Verpiand's family, the person who found the fava bean had to procure the cake for the next day. Not quite good luck, but not a bad thing, either.

So it seems our southern Mardi Gras king cakes are linked to the French Epiphany cake after all. If you want my preference, though, I have to go with the French almond pastry. Something about green, yellow and purple sugar just isn't appetizing.

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