Christmas may be over, but the season of the King is just about to begin. No, not Elvis--we're talking King Cake. And as the Epiphany (aka King Cake Kickoff Date) draws ever closer, it seemed like a good time to examine the Galette des Rois and the King Cake to see some of the differences. Ready?
First, let's discuss the physical differences--what are these cakes?
Galette Des Rois: This cake consists of rounds of flaky puff pastry, layered with a gorgeously dense filling of frangipane. By many accounts, this popular version of the cake seems to hail from northern France.
King Cake: This version, as we know it in the USA, is largely associated with New Orleans, and is defined by wikipedia as "a ring of twisted bread similar to that used in brioche topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Carnival colors)... Some varieties have filling inside, the most common being cream cheese followed by praline."
Both cakes are often garnished with crowns--the galette des rois version commonly being a paper version which can be worn.
Based on my research, the New Orleans King Cake more closely resembles another regional French variation which goes by various names: Gâteau des Rois, or sometimes the couronne, or sometimes the Twelfth Night Cake, which is made of brioche and candied fruits--one could surmise that the New Orleans version is a derivation of this. (Note: Not to confuse things, but it does seem that occasionally galette des rois and gateau des rois are used interchangeably).
Physical differences aside, there are several other subtle differences between the two cakes:
With both the Galette des Rois and the King Cake, there will be a trinket hidden inside the cake, and the person who finds it in their slice is declared "King". However, what the trinket is can vary.
With the Galette des Rois, Individual bakeries may offer a specialized line of fèves depicting diverse themes from great works of art to classic movie stars and popular cartoon characters. According to Dorie Greenspan's entry on Serious Eats,
Feve means bean and, originally, that’s what the trinket was. But over the years, while the word feve remained, the beans gave way to fanciful trinkets. (There are feve collectors all over the world now.) It probably goes without saying, but this being Paris, the best pastry chefs change their feves each year and, yes, vie to be the most original.
With the King Cake, while variations exist, by far the most popular trinket is a baby figurine. Why? Well, as you learned in last year's King Cake entry, some say is to represent the young Christ of the epiphany; however, we like this explanation so much better: "a local bakery chain got a large shipment of such plastic dolls from Hong Kong very cheaply in the 1950's and had to use them up and there is no more signifigance than that." Who knows the real truth, but hey, it makes a good story.
Additionally, the duties associated with being crowned king can vary. With both cakes, the lucky trinket-finder gets to wear the crown that traditionally garnishes the cake; while in both cases this person is declared king of the moment, it seems that a tradition more closely tied to the King Cake is that this person is also responsible for buying the cake for the next party. It would make sense that this tradition is tied only with the King Cake though, as it is available for a longer period of time and therefore there would be more occasions for the cake to be served. Which brings us to the next point...
Another major difference between the cakes is the dates of availability. Though both make their big debut on the Epiphany (January 6), the Galette des Rois has a noticeably shorter season--it is generally available through the month of January, whereas the King Cake will be available for the full Carnival Season, culminating on Mardi Gras (mid to late February, or sometimes even March).
Now, by this point you may be feeling a royal hankering for one or the other of these cakes--happily, there are sweet, sweet resources for you. Ready?
As for places to buy?
For the galette des rois, look to your local French bakery--anyone worth their fleur de sel should have it available at least on January 6th. As for the King Cake? Alas a harder species to find, unless you're in the New Orleans area--however, joyfully, several bakeries, such as Gambino's, Haydel Bakery, and Randazzo will ship King Cakes anywhere in the US.