Jan 10, 2014

The Pastry On Everybody's Lips: Pithiviers au Foin


It's early janvier (January), and that means it's out with the Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) we saw everywhere for the past two months, and in with the Galette des Rois (King's Cake) for Epiphany. For the Epiphany. Evidently, I don't know enough about Catholicism to use that confidently in a sentence.


The first Sunday of January is, according to the story told to Gigi by her teachers and then transmitted shorthand to us, the day to celebrate when the three kings went to visit the newly-born baby Jesus. In pre-Santa times, children even used to receive presents at Epiphany rather than Christmas, to commemorate the gifts given by the Magi. Because of Epiphany, also known as Three King Day here, families all over France -- ourselves included -- are eating Galette des Rois for dessert. It's a round disk of very flaky puff pastry with a frangipane/sweet almond paste center (or, sometimes, applesauce filling and sometimes even other creative, sweet fillings). Very simple and surprisingly good. Not surprisingly, eating it makes a huge, crumby mess. Traditionally, it is accompanied by glasses of hard cider.

But the point of a Galette des Rois is not the taste, though that's nice. The point is to see who will get the fève (little "favor" made of ceramic) that is baked into the cake. Children at schools, whether religious or not, generally have a Galette des Rois celebration and, sure enough, both of our girls are wearing crowns when I pick them up after school on their first Galette des Rois in this country. Gigi tells me excitedly that she was the one in her class who got the fève! Yeah! Except that Pippa did not get the fève, now or ever (she only has a crown because everybody in her class got a crown) and we get to hear about that for the rest of the day.

Galettes des Rois come in many sizes, with the fève baked in, from most bakeries and even frozen or pre-packaged from Picard and the grocery stores. Just this year I learned that the once the cake is cut, the youngest child is supposed to sit under the table. The server points to a piece of galette and asks who it's for, and the child names each person at the table in a perfectly impartial manner. Luckily, we did not know this before. After dinner that first year, I cut up the galette and, thank God, I hit just the right spot to feel the fève as I'm cutting. Of course that is the piece that "coincidentally" ends up on Pippa's plate because Hell hath no fury like a six year old whose sister gets a fève but she does not. And so, all are happy.


Hard to see in the photos, but Gigi's fève is a cute little alien guy, and Pippa's is a pretty ring. Traditionally, they were fava beans (when the fève tradition started in the late 1700s and all the way into the 20th century), hence the name. More recently, they would have been baby Jesuses -- baby Jesii? --  or little Kings. But at present, we even have a couple in the house that are Avatars, from the film. So fèves are very hip and rolling with the times.

At our favorite bakery, this year's fèves are landmark themed. So far -- we like to continue the season for a while, to maximize fève-winning potential -- we have the Montparnasse Tower (worst landmark in Paris!) and Sacré Coeur.

Further notes on the Galette des Rois tradition: Usually, the person who finds the fève is responsible for picking a king or queen to "reign" with them for the day. I know one couple in San Francisco who both attended a French-immersion school as children and did the whole galette tradition in class. He got the fève in third grade and picked her as his queen and now, approximately 40 years later, they are married and send their children to the same French school in San Francisco. Beware the power of the fève! Here, my brother -- the lucky fève winner -- makes the very prudent decision to pick his wife to be his queen.

And on another note: They haven't really taken all the Bûche de Noël out of the bakeries yet. It's two weeks after Christmas! Who is still buying them?

THE CHEESE: Pithiviers au Foin

Pithiviers au Foin is an artisanal cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk in the town of Bondaroy, near Pithiviers, which is in turn not too far from Paris. The cheese is, therefore, sometimes also called Bondaroy au Foin. "Foin", by the way, is hay, as you can plainly see on the cheese. Do you eat it, along with the crust? Is it a little hard to chew? Does it get stuck in your teeth like grassy floss? Yes, yes, and yes. But it's delicious nonetheless, even if you do need to dig out a strand from your mouth every now and then.

The hay is a throwback to the days when this was made from plentiful summer milk and then preserved by storing it in hay. It was especially useful to save it till the fall and grape harvest time, when there would be many extra hands to feed. In days of old, we are told the hay infused the cheese with a grassy smell, but nowadays it's mostly cosmetic and does little to flavor it.

It's a white mold cheese with an affinage of three weeks. And, as you can clearly see, the inside is a lovely golden color of butter. It softens into a goopy, delicious, salty-mild, spreadable mass -- hay and all.


At just about any time of the year that is not Epiphany, a stuffed flaky pastry disc is called a "pithivier". It is commonly assumed that the pastry is named after the town of Pithiviers, as is the cheese. The most common pithivier is, like the Galette des Rois, stuffed with almond paste or fruit compote. But there are even savory versions filled with meats or cheese. Heck, I've enjoyed one filled with scallops in a cream-white wine sauce.


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