Incoming: Galette season
On crunch and where all those almonds come from (spoiler: not France!)
After three weeks in the countryside, taking 75% less steps than I take in Paris and therefore trying to moderate how many pieces of holiday chocolate and how many slices of panettone seem sane given a sharp decline in movement, we’ve reached another milestone in indulgence: the Epiphany. As someone raised Jewish (with a Christmas tree, obviously), I had absolutely zero idea what this holiday was until I moved to France. To this day, I have a vague sense of the religious significance but really associate the 6th of January as the first in a long series of festivities in the year that come with a celebration of sugar (Jesus, too, but my sense is he takes a backseat for the French).
The Galette des Rois, the French King’s Cake, is a puff pastry pie filled with frangipane. In less classic iterations, it may also be stuffed with chocolate, pistachio, or flavoured with orange blossom and spice. Hidden inside is a porcelain fève, a reward for the person who lands the studded slice and earns the title of King for, well, the meal (let’s be reasonable).
“Fèves, as their name suggests, were originally simple dried fava beans, used as tokens to designate temporary kings in traditions dating back to Ancient Rome. Of course, in this pre-New-Testament era, fèves had nothing to do with Epiphany. Rather, in honor of the winter solstice any sort of hierarchy was temporarily elided, giving even the lowest citizens the possibility to be designated king by the tiny bean symbolizing imminent spring. Bit by bit, as with many pagan traditions, the fève became part and parcel with Catholic Epiphany celebrations.”
Anyway, it’s fun. And delicious. And it’s yet another opportunity for the country’s top pastry chef to flex their creativity. If you’re a purist, best to stick with more classic bakeries for your galette fix— Poilâne has a great one, as does Mamiche, Landemaine and Utopie. (Not every holiday needs to be a flex, let’s be honest.)
But I realized, while biting into my first of the season the other night, that besides the intense nuttiness from the almonds, what really speaks to me about the galette is the crunch from the flaky pie dough.
I picked up a mini galette from our countryside bakery (alert: the mini ones are usually sans fèves) and we reheated it just a bit, as recommended. And then a little bit extra. The just-a-bit is key because too much heat pushes it into soggy territory and that’s no good. The resulting flavor was solid but it lacked the crunch quotient I so crave in food.
According to one gastrophysicist, crunchiness for our brains may signal freshness which makes the food more appealing. Noisy food also draws attention to the act of eating and we all know, mindfulness while eating is both crucial and far too rare in our era of distraction. The noise, he says, helps prolong the sensory experience and can be linked to reduced stress levels. (I don’t know if eating an entire bag of tortilla chips passes the stress reduction test but I like the thinking.)
It’s for this reason my sense of pleasure skyrockets when I bite into a Patrick Roger rocher or a dark chocolate ganache filled with a thin layer of lace wafer from Edwart, or one of the bite-sized sablé sandwich cookies filled with flavored creams at Bontemps (count me a diehard fan of the one with a caramel of flambéed banana, peanut-butter and peanut whipped cream).
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And since we're talking about crunch, it’s worth talking about where all those crunchy almonds come from to make the frangipane.