Editor’s note: As we roll out our holiday issue, we’re sharing personal holiday essays from an international cohort of New Yorkers. Gus Reckel is the long-bearded French baker behind Bushwick’s bakery L’imprimerie. Here, Monsieur Gus tells me about his childhood galette des rois (aka king’s cake) tradition, as well as his father’s recipe that he plans to re-create this January. You can read more about this French holiday tradition in last year’s holiday issue.
Very few people make galette des rois in France, and I really don’t know why. It’s not that complicated — if you buy the puff pastry you’re basically done, right? You spread your frangipane between two puff pastry layers, put in a little fève, shape it, score it a little bit, do a bit of design, egg wash and bake for like 45 minutes and you’re done.
Otherwise buying it can be really expensive, which is at least good for French bakers. The galette season is one of their best all year. Although it’s traditionally served during the first week of January for Epiphany, bakers have extended the season from mid-December to something like mid-February. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but some are also getting very creative, and going away from the traditional almond recipe to do something like pear and apple and whatever — there are some really unappetizing combinations.
I’ve never bought a galette since my dad would make ours. He’s not a professional baker, but when he wasn’t working much, he trained opposite of a friend of his who bakes. Bread is a beautiful product, like the way the dough moves and the way the gluten stretches — it’s a proper craft. He would do our bûche de Noël (yule log) in December as well as the galette in January, which has lots of nice memories.
The galette tradition is crazy when you’re a kid — you eat slices until you can’t have it any more, or until you find the baby Jesus (or whatever figurine) and are then crowned queen or king. You try to go as fast as you could to see if you got the fève and then you start it all over again. We kept the same fève over the years. It’s sometimes a bean, or a baby Jesus or maybe even a coin. Whatever it is, we made sure that we didn’t throw them away, or that the guests don’t leave with them, so that we would have some for the next year.
I learned the recipe from my father, who has always been good at making puff pastry from scratch (I remember being woken up on Sundays by him hitting the bench with the pin so that he could flatten the butter to do the puff pastry). It’s actually a similar recipe to what we’re using [at the bakery] for the almond croissant with the frangipane on the inside.
The trick to creating frangipane is to be right on the amount of almond against the amount of pastry cream. You also have to decide if you want to put in rum or not, or if you put almond flavoring or liqueur or not. And people have different tastes — some people like it very dairy and creamy (and it’s cheaper to use more pastry cream because it’s only eggs, flour and milk and sugar), but I don’t, and my dad always went heavy on the almond flour and light on the pastry cream, too.
Following my dad’s traditional recipe, we’ll start making and selling the galette at the bakery in early January. I don’t know how popular it’s going to be, so it’s going to be interesting. I’ve been here for three years, and Bushwick is the right spot in New York in terms of being in a nice neighborhood with a good mix of newcomers and community that had been here for longer. I hope we’ve managed to keep this diversity between the people who are moving in and the people who have been here for a long time, and at least that’s what we see with the customers.