Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Paris, France
Birthday
December 31
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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www.alysasalzberg.com
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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JANUARY 5, 2011 11:45AM

The weather's frightful but the Galette's delightful!

Rate: 30 Flag

 

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When I first came to Paris, I felt something magical and I knew that this was where I wanted to spend my life.  I’m happy to say I’ve accomplished my goal (well, unless I get kicked out at my next visa renewal meeting), but some problems remain. Among them: I miss my family and best friends.  I miss Wal-Mart, things being open on Sunday’s, omnipresent toilets, New York pizza, fresh bagels, my parents’ cooking, easily being able to watch “The Soup,” “The Daily Show,” and “The Colbert Report”….  The list goes on.  Sometimes it gets me really down.

But they say it’s always darkest before dawn.  Because right now, in addition to my love for this beautiful, amazing city, my boyfriend, and our cat, there’s something else to make living in France totally worth it: la galette des rois.

A few years ago, if you’d told me that king cake would be something that I cherished, I would have laughed in disbelief.  In all the middle school and high school French classes I’d had, every year for Mardi Gras, there was king cake and a little celebration.  It was probably a nice break for our beleaguered teachers, and maybe also a way to stick it to the Spanish classes, with their festive Cinco de Mayo parties and whatnot.  The cake was decent, but it was, ultimately, just a cake like any other, somewhat garishly decorated and dubiously colored by artificial means.  Meh.

The fun thing, of course, was that there was the fève, a little object (today usually a tiny plastic baby in Cajun tradition, and a ceramic figurine in French tradition) hidden inside one of the pieces.  Whoever got the piece of cake with the fève inside, got a little gilded paper crown to wear!

….Okay, it kind of did make us want to defect to Spanish class, where everyone wore sombreros and had tacos and listened to upbeat music on that fifth day of May….but still, king cake was better than another day of verb conjugation.

So, that was my early life with king cake.

Then, sometime over the course of my later life in France, I was born again.

I often remember important dates or years, but this time, I really can’t tell you when it was that I tasted my first French king cake – which shall hereafter be referred to by its French name, la galette des rois – or, as is more common, simply la galette.  All I know is that it began an enduring love affair. 

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A galette des rois is usually round-shaped, with a flaky, croissant-like outside, and a soft inside normally filled with frangipane, a sort of almond paste. There are other possible fillings; for example, applesauce seems a popular alternative. But the traditional – and for me, the best, even over chocolate(!) – is frangipane, hands down.  Don’t even try to give me a galette filled with anything else; I will regard that as sacrilege.

 4a

Frangipane filling - the only way to go. 

I don’t remember my first taste of a galette des rois.  That and every subsequent bite have melded into a collective swirl of culinary bliss.  I quickly came to love galettes, which are all the more precious because they're only available for a few months each year.  This makes sense, of course, since the “rois” (“kings”) that the galette’s name refers to are the Three Kings, or Wise Men who came to visit Jesus and bring him really expensive gifts like frankincense and myrrh.  (Today they’d probably bring crude oil and maybe a yacht or something, but times were different then.)  The galette is the traditional dessert of the Epiphany, the day that celebrates this visit.  According to my French calendar, this day falls on January 6th, but Wikipedia suggests that in some Christian cultures, it’s celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and January 8.  Galettes are sold from mid-December, until around the end of February (thus including Mardi Gras, following Cajun tradition).  Desperate addicts like myself might still be able to pick up remaining pre-packaged ones at grocery stores until the beginning of March.

My passion for galettes is so great that one year, when I was back in the US, the man I was in love with at the time called me from France, and much as I missed him and wanted to be with him, what bothered me even more was that he’d told me he’d just had a piece of galette for dessert.  The thought of not being in France when galettes are available, broke my heart a little.

As a lover of the galette, you might wonder if I have an opinion as to where the best one(s) can be bought.  I do, but it may disappoint you.  While just about every bakery sells galettes of all sizes (even tiny, one-person ones), I often find them too greasy.   So, I have to admit, my absolute favorite galettes are pre-packaged, Leader Price brand grocery-store bought ones, which are dry and crispy on the outside and still wonderfully soft on the inside.  The pre-packaged Pasquier brand galettes are also good, and generally a bit more moist.  But they’re often hard to find.  (Also, a word of warning:  if you’re in France during galette season, be careful if you buy a pre-packaged galette: it must say “frangipane” somewhere on the box, or else it’s probably stuffed with something else.)  Some of you foodies out there might be groaning in despair, but I can’t be the only person in France who prefers these grocery store galettes; they often sell out quickly, which is why I stock up.

 

3

This should get me through at least the end of the week. 

In the French tradition, the galette is eaten with a group of people, usually children. The youngest is in charge of saying who gets which piece. The person whose slice includes the fève gets to be king or queen for the day – which is why most galettes are sold with a paper crown. Some people say the king or queen has to buy the next galette, and when it’s children, the king/queen often has to be the leader of a game. 

Neither my boyfriend nor any of my friends are big galette fans, and I don’t yet have children, so my galette-eating experience generally involves savoring a slice each morning, and annoying my boyfriend at the breakfast table when I inevitably come to the piece with the fève, at which point I clap my hands and put on that gilded crown.  I also spend a lot of time shooing our cat Ali, since he loves frangipane.  ….Okay, I do give him little bits of frangipane…I can’t help it.  But even if his piece of frangipane has the fève inside, he refuses to wear the crown.

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Ali in a useful (and badly cropped - sorry) picture that shows the size of a fève vs. that of a housecat  

Fèves themselves have a history, of course, as does the whole custom of the galette des roisAccording to this French Wikipedia article, there was a similar concept in ancient Roman times, when a slave who got the fève in his (or her?) piece of holiday cake was “king for the day” and could order his master around.  The tradition was adapted into Christian culture, and changed for the better in every way, with the large-scale exclusion of slavery, and the gradual development of the galette into the taste/texture combination I cherish today.

Originally, the fève was an uncooked bean.  In France today, upscale boulangeries usually place very elaborate charm-like trinkets in their galettes, but generally fèves are (often misshapen) ceramic figurines. Many of them represent religious figures you’d find in a Manger.  These are called santons.  But there are also secular ones in the form of animals and even movie or cartoon characters. 

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 Pirates of the Caribbean fèves in the form of flat ceramic tablets.

 

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 A cute (and rather well-sculpted) fève featuring a character from Madagascar.

 

 Here are of some of the fèves I’ve accumulated over the years:

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extra

Santons and shepherdess 

Some people collect them, but I just feel bad throwing them out.  Though there are a few that I’d keep no matter what. Like this funky frog:

 

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 or this shepherdess (love her dress) and little blue-gray donkey:

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Or this fève, another shepherdess (a common shape, since it refers to the shepherds who saw the star that announced the birth of Christ). I found it in one of the first galettes I ever ate.  That's a great memory, not only because of the deliciousness of the galette, but because I shared this particular experience with loved ones:

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And now, in honor of them and…uh…Epiphany Eve…and you, dear reader, I think I’ll go have a slice of galette…..

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My first slice of galette this year has the fève in it!  I hope this angel (at least that's what I think it is),

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12b 

will bring us all peace, health, and happiness - and delicious food - in the new year.

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Comments

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I am dying here in hunger..:).. I do not take my wreath down until tomorrow.. Epiphany or Little Christmas..

la galette was available in ma belle province de Quebec in some places.
Mon Dieu I am looking at this and all your little feves.

BTW I noticed the expiration date of the 22nd.. so you're good girl hahaha

rated with hugs
Yeah, I always hate when I'm in America during galette season ...
The galette reminds me of the bienenstich kuchen I used to make many years ago--but your galette is far more charming, with surprises inside.
Now I have to go get butter so that I can fix my own breakfast. Yum!
Linda - I feel so bad - my boyfriend unexpectedly decided to renovate our living room and we had to put things away, including Christmas decorations and I was so surprised by it all that I didn't think about leaving them up until the Epiphany! Oh no! And no worries about the expiration date...sigh...I think the galette will be long gone by the 22nd....

Cranky - Well, at least you have access to delicious pizza, Chinese food, and baked goods if your daughter's feeling nice! I wish we could do an exchange, where I could send you a galette and you could send me some decent sesame chicken (even if you don't have a great Chinese place near you, the Chinese food in Paris is just AWFUL!!!).

sophie - I've never heard of bienenstich kuchen, but I will be looking into it....

Fred - Glad the article inspired you!
dim sum, BBQ ribs, apple cider cole slaw, fried shrimp and hush puppies, gumbo, ... THAT'S what you get for teasing me with your galette!! you awful girl. (I want a feve too)
You had me at "a kind of almond paste." I've never had French King Cake, but I want some!

Lezlie
Such an interesting post, Alysa. But you miss *Wal-mart?* Really? :)
rated for your usual lovely writing.
Charming read and delicious also..
I never heard of it. I sounds divine.
Something to look forward to.

Brave of you to admit missing Wal Mart. :)
Good food giving gifts. I'm glad you don't want to throw away all the cute little fèves. Knowing each one added to an Alysa smile makes the pictures even sweeter!
Abby - You have cut me to the core! Revenge is yours! But if you're nice next time maybe one day I'll send you a feve! :-)

kate - That's so cute. It's interesting that you customized your crown because I read that some French families have customized crowns they use every year for the galette. You are more French than you know.

Lezlie - If I could, I would send you one. It is absolutely delicious. You're lucky, though, because you have another delicious thing I miss from the States: real, Southern cornbread (salty, not sweet like they do it in the North). Yummm.....

Joan - Thanks. I am indeed serious about Wal-Mart - I don't agree with what they stand for, necessarily, but it is so fun to go at 3am and dig for cheap DVD's in their big basins. Plus, it's always open and there's just about anything any normal human being could want to fulfill his/her basic needs. There are some big superstores in France, but NOTHING like Wal-Mart. Plus, the people watching at most Wal-Mart's is an activity all its own.

rita - Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

fernsy - It is indeed a thing to be looked forward to. Or maybe even baked, if you're into that kind of thing. I feel like it might be tricky. But who knows? As for Wal-Mart, I can't help it - as I wrote to Joan's comment, I don't like what it stands for, but there are many reasons that I love it: convenience, good prices, variety, and the people watching!

heidibeth - You are so sweet yourself! Yes, I feel like it would be hard to just toss one of those little guys into the trash. And they do make me smile! :-)
this is charming. I took French but we didn't do this. My teacher was not fun. Funny, but not fun.
Not to be in France during Galette saison..c'est une tragedie d'humaine!

Now I want to taste that Frangipane, and there's NONE at work!
c'est dommage!
Not even a feve to be seen...
rated!
What? Not even a recipe? I even put the coffee on in anticipation. Having a one track mind, galette is now all I can think about so I'm going to have to find one. I wonder if Wal-Mart sells them.....
Alysa, we don't have a Wal-mart in D.C.~ I don't think I've ever been in one. I had no idea...!
Fascinating story, Alysa. I'd never heard of the King Cake tradition. Joyeux 2011!
This is the second piece this week on the Galettes. That noise you hear all the way over in France is my stomach craving one. My post-Christmas tradition is to go to Cost Plus Imports and buy all the leftover Stollen and Panettone at knock-down prices (my March tradition is to try to make excuses to my doctor about the weight gain and the elevated cholesterol).
I love the King cake...My mother in law puts things in her Christmas pudding and every year I hear about my husbands friend who ate the baby...I have tried to make new bakable ones for her out of sculpy. but....
Linda, good thought. I am as we speak emailing my Montreal contacts...

Otherwise, well, winter in Paris isn't the best time, but it seems like there's compensations...
Because of some OSHA regulations our local bakery sells you the King Cake with the bakery in a little plastic bag clipped ot the OUTSIDE> how stupid is that? Alysa, this was such a great post, but i cannot imagine you eating a lot of this, because you are so THIN. It sounds wonderful!!!! RRR
I love good food writing and this is great! I've always wondered about king cakes and now I know. Thank you.
Mime – I’m so sorry – your French teacher DEFINITELY wasn’t fun, neither for his/her students, nor for his/her –self! As a teacher myself, I would absolutely die if I couldn’t have some fun days in there now and then!

Shiral – C’est bien dommage! J’espère que tu en trouveras!

Margaret – I am so sorry to disappoint. I love eating, especially pastries and sweets, but I’m not a very good cook/baker. I’m terrified to try to make a galette – I think I’d only mess it up. Wal-Mart does have an impressive range of products, so I think you’re right to try and look there. And if you can’t find that, you can probably get a cookie cake – the ultimate orgasmic cake experience for me (and those, they do not sell here, alas!).

Joan (2) – Our nation’s capitol doesn’t have a Wal-Mart??? What is the world coming to! The next time you’re travelling, if you have some time and some errands to run, I highly recommend checking one out – you’ll never be the same!

Matt – Thanks. I hope you get to enjoy a delicious galette one day. And une très bonne 2011 à toi aussi!

GeeBee – I haven’t seen any other posts about galettes! I’ll have to see if I can find it – anything about galettes, I love. And your holiday tradition sounds perfectly wonderful to me, galette or no!

snarky – Haha! I’ve always wondered if someone’s ever eaten the little baby. Our fèves here are in ceramic, so it would probably be hard to eat them…but I do wonder….

Macco – Sorry! I hope you do find a galette, though, and enjoy it immensely. And anyway, what’s 10 pounds? You can lose that by mowing the lawn! : - )

Myriad – I hope you can get your hands on a galette. And yes, this is one compensation for the cold, grey weather. It’s too bad it wasn’t quite galette time when you were here.

Amy – Do you mean the fève is outside the bag? That is hilarious and very, very sad! But at least you have galette where you are! Thanks also for saying I’m thin. In real life I’m definitely not, and the 8 pounds I gained over the last three months (no joke) aren’t helping….But thank you for saying that, it is very nice to read. If I could, I'd send you a proper galette with a fève on the inside, where it belongs.
looks good enough to eat--and this was a wonderful read.
Paris makes everything better. Thanks for sharing this little bit.
Oh, like I wasn't already starved!! And all I've got is lefttover Moo Soo Baby Shrimp and miso soup.
And I'm going to eat it cold, just out of spite!!
This delightful post had many prizes in it, but it did leave me hungry. (btw: If you want a pizza recipe, let me know. It's not hard.)
You have quite a collection there. This tradition is very interesting indeed.
This entire post was delicious!
Galette. Kind of slides off the tongue, about like a piece of that great looking cake would!
Galletes are kind of considered traditional now in France, aren't they? I mean, they're really not that pop. Or whatever.
Rated.
Oh man you have made me so hungry. Great post. -R-
Lovely. I didn't know about this at all so thank you for letting us know.
This was really interesting and a lot of fun. Anything with frangipane is delicious to me. And I love the little figurines inside.
How can your friends not be galette fans? They're the only thing to look forward to after the holidays!

Here in Switzerland, the "galettes" are seven plain buns stuck together with sugar crystals on top. We chewed and chewed but there was no delicious filling to be found. There were two tiny plastic baby bottles inside though. Quite sad!
Tasty memories and more. Hope all goes well at your next viza extension.
This is really interesting. We never had galette in any of my French classes, and I'm curious to try! The feve is a tricky proposition, though-I wonder if anyone has ever broken a tooth biting the feve by accident!
This was wonderful - and dreadful because I'm stuck in this stupid little town where there is absolutely nothing good to eat - ever - unless I make it myself, but I've been on a kitchen strike for the past couple of years, so I'm no help. Honestly, this was just delightful. Enjoy every moment in Paris(as it seems you are) and every bite!
rated
Oh wow. I had galette des roi years ago in Britanny. I had forgotten all about it. I'd love to live in Paris - I envy you. Nice blog, by the way.
Just delightful, Alysa. I remember something similar from living in Bern, Switzerland - it would be a bishop in the cake and whoever found it in his/her slice would be lucky all year. At least, thus went the folklore. It was a little ivory bishop, which I thought was a crowned king.
food addiction, especially to french food,
often indicates a personality prone to major sensory delight.
It might be that you are enjoying yourself a little too much over there,
too much good food and wonderful art and amazing conversations
about shit that matters/
and need to come back to
america where we eat and eat and eat and
never feel guilty. and talk about eating .
And think that "art" is something for lazy europeans
being swindled of their hard earned money for fancy creamy stuff.

I am glad it is Epiphany Time, in the Christian calendar.
Which you
French don't go by, since the troubles back in the 18th century.
Here, in the most Godfearing, cholesterol-chugging,
carbohydrate-addicted land on Earth, we worship, and
without any thought for tomorrow, either.
This is what is meant by "land of the free".

I ate alot of pizzas recently, and also some damn fine linguine.
My stomach is not happy, and neither am i.
I wonder whether a baguette will fill me up, but doubt it.
I am online looking for tummy medicine.

Here in Amerika we don't got kings, thank God and Thomas
Jefferson. All we got is queens.
They ask for bread, often,
but cake is all we can give em.
We dare not cut off their heads, cuz they are all
that separates us from Mexicans. Yikes,
This is why we love Mexican cuisine so much.
In moderation, always.
With a 6 pack.
Sarah – Thank you so much. I wish I could have put this in smell-o-vision (or a taste version of such) so that people could get even more of the Galette experience.

Kathy – My pleasure. I hope you’re doing well.

bob – Cold New Jersey/New York Chinese food is one of the biggest things I miss from the States – so you have succeeded in making ME jealous! I hope you enjoyed the meal!

Pilgrim – Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the offer, but nothing can compare to a fresh slice of New York/NJ pizza from one of those big ovens, dripping with cheese grease…oh lordy…. Thanks again, though.

All About – Thanks. There are also a lot of amazing traditions (and food!!!) in Indian culture. I’ll have to check out your blog.

Sparking – Thank you. It’s my love song to one of my favorite pastries.

scanner – Thanks for that very poetic (and very true) comment!

manhattan – They are definitely traditional, and have been around for centuries. In terms of being “pop”, there are some upscale bakeries that put some very cool-looking feves in their galettes…okay, maybe that’s more “chic” than “pop”, and in terms of “pop culture”, as you can see from the photos of the movie tie-in feves, that’s also an aspect of some galettes. Regardless, I just love the taste! It’s like being madly in love (or lust); you don’t think about the person’s past or flaws, just the sheer pleasure of being with them.

Christine – Thanks, and I hope you found something delicious to eat.

Janice – I’m glad you enjoyed this, and I hope you’ll be able to taste a galette one day.

Grace – I’m totally with you – frangipane is one of the best things out there!

karin – I didn’t know there were galettes in Switzerland – thanks for letting me know. On the other hand, I have to say, they definitely don’t sound as good as the French ones….You should cross the border and come stock up on some French galettes!

Algis – Thanks. I have the meeting in April, but am still trying to get the small document that says it’s not my fault it’s scheduled that month instead of February, when I usually have it; the government messed up this year. So much stress….

Jen – I’m sorry you never got to have king cake in French class. Judging from your comment and Mimetalker’s, I guess my French teachers were even cooler than I thought. You should definitely taste a French-style galette (I’m not a big fan of New Orleans king cake) if you get the chance. As for the feve, I’m sure people have cracked their teeth on it. I usually just go into the galette experience with extreme vigilance: you know the feve is in there somewhere, and until someone finds it, you should just take very careful bites.

Kate – I understand being on kitchen strike. But being somewhere where there’s nothing good to eat? What about hamburgers? Or Peanut M&M’s? Or Taco Bell (if you have it)? You are luckier than you think!

Helen –Thanks for reading, but I can’t believe you forgot your galette experience? Maybe it was so wonderful that you went into sensory overload and blacked out?

Fusun – How cute! I want a bishop feve now!

mr. sunshine - I don’t know that people always talk about what matters over here – they sure do complain a lot about EVERYTHING! But maybe misery matters…at least to the French. As for your stomach problems, I sympathize and wish you luck. Pepcid always works for me (for heartburn and such) and Pepto Bismol otherwise. I only use Immodium in extreme emergencies, because that works a little TOO well. As for eating and eating in America, I have to confess, whenever I come to visit, that’s what I do! I have a whole list of food to enjoy (aka gorge myself with). I do think a baguette could fill you up – depends on where you buy it, of course, because some places make thin, shorter-than-average ones (in other bakeries these are called “flutes”). But if you go to a real, normally-priced boulangerie in a residential area, you will get a nice big baguette and I’m sure it’d be easy on your stomach, to boot. Get well soon!