The King Cake holds a Surprise

king cake, galette des rois

A French Tradition

While eating his cake, Jeff pulled out a small white tile, the kind that might be found on a kitchen wall.  He marched up to the counter and indignantly informed the server that they had baked a tile into his cake.  She broke into a big smile and said, “Oh, you found the prize!  You are the winner!” Then she handed him a paper crown.  He came back to the table with his crown looking confused.

I knew about the galette des rois, “king cake”, but it is a January tradition, and we were just approaching Christmas.  Plus, I had never seen a fève “the baked-in prize” that looked like a kitchen tile – I’m still not sure that it wasn’t just a convenient way to get out of admitting an error.

History of Hiding Items in Cake

It is indeed a tradition to eat pies and cakes containing little “prizes” in January.  This can be traced back to Roman times and their winter solstice celebration. A loaf of bread was baked with a bean inside and the person who found the bean was crowned king for the day.

galette des rois, king cake
The galette des rois (king cake) that looks more like a pie

The Christian church changed the solstice celebration to the Epiphany and fixed the date as the 6th of January.  With the “king for a day” theme already established, it became the time to remember the kings who presented gifts to the baby Jesus.  Over the years, the bean-in-the-bread turned into a bean-in-the-cake and became known as the galette des rois, “cake of the kings”.

Cake Versus Pie

In 16th century Paris, this king cake was at the centre of a conflict between the boulangeries “bakeries” and the patisseries “cake shops”. They each wanted the sole rights to make and sell it.  The cake shops won, but the bakeries weren’t about to give up so easily.  If they were forbidden to make king cakes, then they would make king pies. And this is why we have two distinct versions of king cake today.

king cake, galette des rois

The bakeries and cake shops have a better relationship now and you are likely to pass a window and see both versions displayed side by side. One is a round brioche which sometimes goes by the name of gateau des rois and the other is more like a pie, but they both can be called galette des rois. Certain regions of France have their preference, but in the south, we like to be inclusive, so we eat both.

king cake - galette des rois

Revolutionaries Versus the King Cake

The bakery-cake shop war wasn’t the only problem caused by this king cake.  After the French revolution, the new leaders wanted to make it illegal. They had just gotten rid of one king and didn’t want another one – not even a pretend one.  They were seriously considering outlawing the token king custom and arresting anyone who dared to make or sell the king cakes. After considering what the public reaction might be, they came to their senses. They realised that you just don’t mess with a French man’s food or holidays, so the cake with a bean in it was safe.

The Bean Evolves

The item baked into the cake is called a fève, which means “bean”, a broad bean to be exact, which was the original king selector.  At the end of the 19th century, the beans were replaced by porcelain figurines.  (I can’t help but think that the dentists must have come up with that idea.)  Even though the trinkets in the cake are no longer beans, they are still called fèves.  They might be tiny santons (nativity figures), cartoon characters, or any number of other things.  There are collectors of these fèves and even a fève museum.

3 feves in galette des rois, king cake
If you are lucky, you might find a feve like one of these in your cake

Modern Tradition

The cake with the fève is a long-standing tradition which is still very popular today.  At January gatherings, when it is time to serve the cake, the youngest child gets under the table.  The hostess cuts the cake into as many pieces as there are diners, then she ask the child, “Who is this piece for?” The child calls out a name and the cake is distributed according to his instructions.  This way there can be no cheating, as he can’t see the fève and play favourites.  Everyone chews their piece of cake very slowly, to avoid cracking a tooth, until the fève is found.

Whoever finds the fève becomes the king (or queen) for the day.  They get to wear a paper crown which is supplied with the cake.  The king’s responsibility is to bring another king cake to the next gathering – and that probably means the following week because the French eat these cakes the whole month of January.  This way everyone gets a chance to find the fève, wear the crown, and be king or queen of the party.

President Holland and King Cake, galette des rois
There is no feve or crown for Monsieur Hollande, but he sure gets a big cake

The only person who does not have the opportunity to find the fève and become king for the day is the President of the Republic of France.  Each year the baker’s association presents the Champs Elysée “the home of the president” with a giant galette des rois – but with one difference: There is no fève inside and no crown accompanies it.  The French dethroned their king a long time ago and they are not taking any chances.

French Holidays & Traditions 200

*More French Holidays & Traditions can be found in my book.

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A bit of French humour:

joke, fève, king cake, galette des rois
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Margo Lestz
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  1. Thanks; almost always find your subjects and information interesting. However!, to hear the gatteau du roi called King Cake rather unsettled me!

    1. Hello and thanks for your comment. Sorry about unsettling you… I didn’t mean to do that at all 🙂 But in English, the galette des rois is, indeed, called “king cake”. It sounds strange to me too. I am American and had never heard of king cake. It seems to be quite popular in New Orleans where the French influence is strong. Here is the wikipedia site: You can also do a google image search for “king cake” to see the very colorful ones made in New Orleans for Mardi Gras (Carnaval).
      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.
      All the best – Margo

  2. I recognized the “king cakes” here in France because I lived in New Orleans for many years. But the baker couldn’t understand why I wanted a baby in mine. I didn’t understand the feve. New Orleans King Cakes have a tiny baby doll inside. The one who gets the doll have to bring the next cake.

    Thanks for sorting me out again. I depend on your insider’s view to keep my keel down and my sails in the wind in France. 🙂

    1. That is funny – I can just imagine the confused look you must have gotten when you asked for a cake with a baby in it 🙂 And I didn’t know about the New Orleans king cakes until I was researching. It seems that they are very colorful, at least from the pictures on the internet.
      It’s interesting to see how traditions travel from country to country and then are changed and adapted by each culture.
      All the best on your French adventure!

      1. New Orleans King cakes are a round brioche with a hole in the middle. They’re frosted with the colors of Mardi Gras (purple, green and gold). Yes. I got a very confused look about the baby in the cake. I had to explain the New Orleans King Cakes. Then they understood.

        It was my usual bakery so they were great about it. They’re used to my accent. After two and a half months, they finally asked if we were from Belgium last week. 😉 Why do people think we’re from Belgium?

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