06 January 2010

Holiday Cakes

The French word for just about any round, flattish, plumpish object is galette, applying equally to savory buckwheat crêpes and to pebbles on the beach, to seat cushions and to latkes. At this time of year, however, galette means galette des rois, the cake eaten traditionally as part of the festivities surrounding the Feast of the Epiphany. Since tonight is Twelfth Night, my neighbors have been eating galettes for several days; I enjoyed mine on Sunday. I’ve had cause, therefore, to reflect on the holiday cake of my adopted culture, and on that of the culture into which I was born, the much-maligned fruitcake.

The Galette
The name galette des rois (Translation: round, flattish, plumpish object of the kings) refers in part to the Three Wise Men, which is why the French eat it at Epiphany. A puff pastry filled with marzipan, it’s not a terribly exciting dish, which is perhaps why it’s become allied with the Ancient Roman tradition of adding a bean to the cake batter.

But here comes the other dimension of the “king” of the name: whoever finds the bean becomes king for the day. This entails selecting a queen, and many a family gathering has been torn asunder in the selection process. (In the British variety, the cake also contains a pea, the finder of which is designated queen.) Hiding a bean in a cake, and according privileges and duties to the finder, has been a practice since the days of Ancient Rome, when even the slaves of the household were permitted to enter into the fun. Then as now, the slices were distributed according to the dictates of the youngest person present, who hid under the table so as not to be unduly influenced.

Though this practice was common to celebrations of Saturnalia — the beginning of winter — the galette had no other particular connection to the season. In France it was served at any festive occasion, and only gradually did it become a Christmas tradition. But this being France, politics enter into every question, as during the Terror, when any mention of kings or of Christian holidays raised hackles and might lead to the guillotine.

Since the Franco-Prussian War, when food was scarce in Paris, actual beans have given way to porcelain figurines, stilled called fèves (fava beans) and passionately collected by favophiles, who jostle numismatists and philatelists in French shops.

Finding a fève can be an unpleasant surprise, hard on the teeth and, if the figurine has points, on the gums, tongue, and palate, too. French fève designers do try to be careful, though others don’t bother. In New Orleans, where the French gâteau des rois (a ring-shaped brioche studded with candied fruit) became the King Cake, associated with Mardi Gras, the figurine is often that of a baby, ostensibly the Christ Child, whose holy little arms have pierced a lot of flesh. Stigmata for the faithful!

Yet it may be worse to swallow one than to bite into one the wrong way.

My luck with the galette hasn’t been great: I’ve never found the fève, and I’ve been underwhelmed by the flavor of most of the galettes I’ve tasted. This year, I went to the best of Beynes’ beleaguered boulangeries, and the results were correct, as the neighbors would say. The paper crown that accompanied the cake wasn’t designed to fit the head of any adult I know, but the fève was a pretty little porcelain butterfly.

The Fruitcake
I always understood the old joke about fruitcakes being used as doorstops to be a reference to the weight of the cake. Certainly every one of which I partook, growing up, was damned heavy, dense with pecans and brightly colored candied fruit. Only as an adult did I come to realize that other people meant the joke as a reference to the supposed inedibility of the cake. And it was only after I sampled a fruitcake that didn’t come from the Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, that I understood why.

For in places other than Texas, it seems, a fruitcake is made with great quantities of flour and not much in the way of candied fruit and nuts. Other people’s fruitcakes are terribly dry, when not soaked in rum — a recipe that would have been anathema in my family. Thus, when I first tried Another Kind of Fruitcake, I didn’t find a spongy, baba-style confection. I found a block of sawdust.

That said, I have learned in the course of the years that even a Corsicana fruitcake is sometimes an acquired taste, and that its very richness is more than some people can handle. Too bad for you. That leaves more for me.

The Collin Street Bakery has been cranking out these marvels since the turn of the last century, delivering them around the world. Everybody from Caruso to Carter has eaten them; indeed, the White House regularly serves Collin Street goods, as the bakery’s website is quick to make clear.

For a long time, my mother used to ship me a cake every year. Sometimes she’d send me a little one at home, and a bigger one to share with colleagues at work. Since I’ve been in Europe at Christmas, I’ve had to do without. I don’t think anybody could afford what it must cost to ship a Corsicana fruitcake across the Atlantic (at least, at a rate whereby the cake would arrive in time for the holidays), and with modern security measures being what they are, I’m even more doubtful that a Corsicana fruitcake could pass customs.

But I’m looking forward to my next slice. It’s as fixed in my conception of Christmas as Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, Eileen Farrell’s exuberant high notes, and my own plaintive warbling of my favorite carol, “We Three Kings.”

Which is, of course, a song about Epiphany.*

From the Prado, Bosch’s take on the Wise Men.
Where’s the cake?

*NOTE: Though the religious significance matters little to me, I do take note of the season. This is only natural, because I am always on the lookout to relive my triumph in the role of Duke Orsino.


Paris - A Votre Service! said...

Hi and Happy New Year,

Galette des rois (both the frangipane ones and the brioche ones in the south) can be insipid (especially if too sweet or too much dough or served too cold), but when they are good they can be a very satisfying creamy nutty butterfest. In my books at least. Try Madame Bechu on Avenue Victor Hugo. The Lenotre ones are very good as well.

And regarding your post on the ice cream, you forgot to mention that the Agenaise has agen prunes soaked in buckets of armagnac. Also a good thing in my books. (I love all things Berthillon but the whipped cream is better at Grom)

and to answer your (probable) question, yes I probably do spend too much time thinking about these sorts of things....

William V. Madison said...

Well, perhaps you do spend too much time thinking about these things, but you've applied your deliberations toward the benefit of our enlightenment. And that's very kind of you. Grand merci!

Paris - A Votre Service! said...

I forgot Carette. Always good.