Le Weekend, 1/5/23: The Whimsy and Luck of Epiphany Cakes 🇫🇷

a french king cake in almond paste
Also, French classic movies in the New Year.  ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


January 05, 2024

Dear Frenchly Readers,

It’s around this time of year, after the dust has settled from the holidays, and I haven’t yet truly internalized the amount of calories I’ve been consuming since the holidays began, that I start thinking about cakes. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am a fan of baking cakes. I love the mystery–how you never know if it will be a total disaster or amazing by the time it comes out of the oven. Did I forget the baking soda? Or add it twice? What if I forgot the salt? Or got lazy with my measuring cups and sort of eyeballed the flour because my scale needed batteries? Or just couldn’t read my notes from the last time I made this cake? (Which happens, unfortunately, more than anyone in my family would prefer, as I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of cook.)

But more than anything, I love the epiphany of the reveal and, if all goes well, the ultimate result. There is nothing (to me) that says homey comfort better than a cake on the sideboard or in the fridge, a glass of cold milk at the ready. (I’ve written on these pages before about my cake theory of life, and the lasting impression that a certain chocolate cake in the movie Quiz Show made on me.)

So it’s no wonder to me that as the Epiphany approaches on January 6th, the French celebrate the appearance of Jesus Christ with a cake. A Galette des Rois, or Kings’ Cake, to be precise, named for the Three Wise Men, a.k.a. the Three Kings, who discovered and then revealed to the world that Jesus was indeed Jesus. The cake is a simple puff pastry filled with an almond-flour custard, called frangipane. Some people spike that frangipane with alcohol or add chocolate or turmeric, the sky’s the limit these days for what’s inside. But the shape is always a golden discus, the kind you might imagine Caesar tossing around the Parthenon. (You can make your own so easily, watch Chef Dominique Ansel show you how, here. Want some help finding a good store-bought puff pastry? We’ve got you covered, here and here.)

The fun part of these cakes is not the laminated puff, really, but the “reveal” part of the whole enterprise. To symbolize the Epiphany, there are ceramic trinkets, called “fèves” ( which translates to “fava beans”), baked into the cakes. The person who gets the trinket will be king or queen for a day and is said to have a year of good luck awaiting them, which is a lovely way to start the new year. Originally a pagan tradition, harkening back to Ancient Rome, the fève was once, in fact, a dried fava bean baked into a cake that, for the person who found it, would symbolize imminent spring, which is pretty good luck, if you ask me. Eventually fèves and Christianity became intertwined and fava beans were replaced with naked baby Jesus porcelain trinkets (apparently, in high stakes cake-eating, it was easier to cheat at this trinket roulette with fava beans).

The French, being the French, decided before long that it wasn’t necessary to have them all be babies. I mean, come on. Let’s get creative, mes amis. Soon they could be anything from small animals, to playing cards, to instruments–the imagination has no bounds Though in theory the Epiphany and the cake were all about realizing that Christ was the Son of God, the whimsy of the entire situation started to be the main thing.

For a time, this fun tradition was forbidden in France during and after the “let them eat cake” Revolution; but some people baked them up anyway, without the fève, calling them “equality cakes.” (It is those, sans fève, that are still found in the Elysee palace–no king crowning game happening over there for poor Macron!)

But fève abstinence didn’t last long, as the French realized that no fun was no fun, and no one wanted to make a 12-step program for what was becoming a very dour and gray Epiphany indeed. Soon production of fèves began again in earnest and exclusively in Limoges, a town known for the invention of the limousine, and, also, for its fine porcelain. French children often traded the small fèves they found year after year at school. After earning them the incredible luck to be king or queen for a day, the trinket took on a life of its own. It was the perfect sized pocket charm to inspect in a boring moment during math class.

But when plastic took over, in the late ’80s, fève production in Limoges ended. It took the French about a year to realize that plastic would really not do for this long-standing tradition, and soon another ceramicist near Grenoble started making them again, and pastry chefs started creating their own special ceramic creations for their shops. (Some even thoughtfully making holes through them so that they could be strung on necklaces or made into earrings.)

To an outsider, it may seem so odd for the French to create another reason to stuff oneself with cake in early January–we’re all trying to find the gumption to start the Nike Training Club App by January 6th, aren’t we? But I think we are missing the whimsy of the entire thing, and how fun, and also tethering, especially in such confusing times on our planet, traditions like this one are for children.

In our family, our youngest son discovered this January, through a bit of good detective work, that perhaps Santa was his parents. And although at first this was heartbreaking to him (and, my God, me!), what saved the day was the layered traditions and beliefs in our family about what Christmas is and what it means to us. If Christmas had been tethered only by the ultimately thin and frayed acquisitive notion of Santa, we would have been lost, my  friends. Instead, rather like a trinket that is found in a cake on January 6th, it is the whimsy and tradition that carries on in the imaginations of children, the laughter and candles, the joy, just the joy.

So, I say: Find your cake, eat it, find a trinket baked in if there’s one to be had. We have lists of where to find them in lots of places (even my local bakery, Norimoto, up here in Maine is baking them this weekend). Or, if you’re like me, just have a lovely chocolate cake on your side board. I may throw in a dried scarlet runner bean or two for fun. Joy is so fleeting and the world in this non-stop cycle of news seems so dismal, we need something, anything, to crack a smile, take us out or ourselves, or, perhaps, send us rushing to the dentist.

À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:

If you aren’t baking your own cake, or going out to find one for the weekend (on our homepage we have lists and lists of where to get them in cities across America), you can still eat French (if you are in New York city, that is). Some of the best French restaurants in New York are rounded up right here for you, and my Gosh, if you aren’t one of the many New Yorkers (or just anybody, everywhere) hacking with some sort of virus, go out, eat, be merry.

I have been watching The Morning Show this break with Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon. One of the smarter shows I’ve seen, it’s also been very anxiety producing as it’s brought up so much old history of my own. I’d love to hear from any of you who might have watched it, too.

I have a winter goal: I am going to watch as many classic French movies as I can. Want to join me? Email me. Maybe we can have a list together and some chats. The 400 Blows is the one I want to start with…

À bientôt,


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January Comfort Foods

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