Three years ago, I wrote a blog post about how the French say “Bonne Année” for Happy New Year and how in France, Happy New Year is said the entire month of January. While I was living in Paris, I’d hear it from everyone from the cashier as I was leaving the grocery store to the attendant at the panini cart to my friends across town. Even if January 1 was weeks past.
In addition to saying Bonne Année, the French actually celebrate the new year all month, with a cake.
2020 was a hard year. If there’s any year to (safely) over-celebrate the new year, 2021 feels like that year.
The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 to mark the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, and the end of the Christmas season. It is traditional for the French to have a Galette des Rois (King Cake), to mark the occasion. More recently, this cake has become the unofficial New Year’s cake. It’s sold in bakeries and grocery stores across France all month. It’s featured at parties, gatherings, and household dinners, and is often accompanied with a toast to the new year.
Not surprisingly because it’s a French pastry, this cake tastes incredible. It has two layers of sweet, buttery, flaky dough sandwiched between an almond cream filling. It looks like a flat, shiny croissant, is cut like a pie, and tastes like a combination of a breakfast pastry and a cream pie.
Similar to the King Cake featured in Mardi Gras celebrations, the Galette des Rois has a tiny charm, called “la fève,” that is baked into the cake. This is likely a very tiny plastic baby and traditionally a fava bean. Whoever has the slice with the charm is the king or queen for the day. Stores sell these cakes with a paper crown on top, so that the finder of the fève can wear this crown.
Since it’s the dessert, or one of them, people in France eat their king cake with a digestif, or an after-dinner drink. At a party my roommates and I hosted, I can remember eating a Galette des Rois, and washing it down with a glass of crème de menthe (mint liquor). Others drank port (red wine with brandy) or absinthe.
When we hosted that party, it was mid-January. It was bitter cold in Paris, the kind of cold that is accompanied by wind that stings your eyes. The sky was often cloudless and gray, a stamp of many days without sunshine. There wasn’t snow on the ground, but the dry, eerie air felt as if we were living in the calm before a snow storm.
When we shouted “Bonne Année!” and toasted to the new year, I can remember feeling a little lighter, as if there was snow on the ground, and someone had shoveled it from the sidewalk, so that when I walked, my boots didn’t feel stuck every time I took a step. I can remember the world looked a little brighter, even when it wasn’t sunny the next day. Without even saying it, we toasted to the prospect of the coming year, and to the possibility of sunshine in one of the days ahead. That possibility, albeit small, gave me hope.
Here’s a toast to 2021, this whole month! Bonne Année!
And to eating cake.
If you’d like to try making your own Galette des Rois this month, here’s a recipe: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1019114-galette-des-rois
Comment below, and let me know how it turned out!