Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home. – Edith Sitwell
It’s nice to have a few down days at the hotel, nice to be able to spend time with the staff, get things done in the calm and quiet. My husband and I agreed. We are catching up on chores, those things that are normally done in the low season months at every family-owned and run hotel around the world.
Decorating decisions made, artisans interviewed, estimates scrutinized, we have finally organized the complete renovation of Room #12, a room that hasn’t been in service for a dozen years. We’ve chosen elegant, sophisticated cream with a touch of pale teal and muted golden-green anise. We will be enlarging the bathroom, insulating the walls, making it pretty, cosy and comfortable and ready for the summer season. We then sat down and made a complete list of all renovations to be made – rooms that need to be completely renovated or partially renovated – as well as all equipment that must be bought or replaced and filled in a calendar covering the next five years or so in order of importance, of necessity. It’s odd to look at a timeline of the hotel and making decisions for next year, the year after, five and six years down the line, when I still find it difficult to believe that I own this place. I still walk down the hallways, albeit with much more ownerly confidence, in awe, constantly having to remind myself that it is all mine.
“You know, I have a great idea,” I said to my husband last week. “Why don’t we renovate our own bathroom in our apartment after the bathroom in room #12 has been done but before they seal off the doorway between our bedroom and 12 so we can use the new bathroom while ours is being renovated? That way the job won’t be rushed.” I thought that I was being so clever, so practical. “You know, we have an entire hotel full of bathrooms we can use,” he answered, somewhat amused. “Oh, I forgot about that. But then it won’t be very convenient running from our bedroom to use the bathroom down the hall or upstairs!” He laughed at me. “You do realize that we can sleep in any one of the rooms in the hotel that we want to, right?”
I still find it hard to believe that I own this place.
Winter. I’m back to writing, beginning to help my son who is currently working in Sweden hunt for an apartment in Nantes for his return, cleaning and organizing my apartment (that has woefully been neglected since we moved in one year ago). And making lots and lots of jam with the end of Autumn fruits and vegetables. And turning to winter citrus for the long, harried, assiduous task of orange marmalades. Today, I order the first load of bitter Seville oranges that have just shown up in France.
And I’ve baked. Of course, I baked. Although I made nothing for Hanukkah, and nothing for Christmas, I cannot let an Epiphany go by without galettes des rois.
Lights off, the gray, silent afternoon seeps in through the curtains allowing me just enough illumination to slice and chop the last pears of the season, the slick flesh leaving a sticky glaze on my hands. The unusual spring has finally turned to cold and as the fog settles onto the city’s rooftops, enveloping the church towers in a soft blanket of mystery, graffiti in pink, blue and gold pressing forward in an endless effort to assert itself, I press my hands into the chilled pastry, brush off a cloud of wintry flour and prepare to assemble this year’s Galette. The hours upon hours, weeks into years, I spent long ago watching a chef pound, roll, turn endless mounds, endless squares, endless layers of puff pastry come back to me, his hypnotic movements, the creamy dough against the silver shine of the worktop urging me on. I try and imitate his actions, but lose myself in the sensual pleasure of my every gesture, the clean, bright scent of fresh dough, its smooth, cool softness, the delicate poof of powdery flour that rises around me, making me laugh. And I forget the haunting grayness of this bleak midwinter.
There is no religious symbolism in these galettes in our home, no religious affinity with the day. But there is something emblematic about having a galette or two to kick off the New Year, something comforting about eating warm, crispy, sweet galettes in the dead of winter. Husband waits expectantly, a yearly habit, an annual custom, biding his time with a bakery-bought galette, until I pull out the flours, the rectangles of butter, decide on a filling – or two – until he hears the familiar bang bang bang of the rolling pin on pastry, sees the two white powdery handprints on the back of my skirt where I inadvertently wiped them clean and knows that one of my homemade Galette des Rois is in the making. He finds the box where a dozen or so tiny ceramic figurines, lucky fêves of galettes past lie nestled in a happy heap, sifts through the collection and chooses one that I will push down into the frangipane or the fruit compote or the pastry cream before placing the second round of feuilletée atop and sliding it into the oven.
Add to my husband’s expectations the excitement and curiosity of our staff (who still wonder at my baking skills) and there is no turning back on the promises of galettes I have been making since the first of the year. There was even a loud and heated discussion about the exact date, some confounded by this secular country’s changing the day of the galette to the first Sunday of the month when families could enjoy it together. “But everyone knows,” I stated, “that epiphany is the 6th day of January, 12 days after Christmas when the Three Kings went to see the baby Jesus! And that is when we eat the galette des rois! Anyway,” I teased, “all who want a slice of galette must wait until the 6th!”
Happily I baked my galettes, one filled with frangipane, one filled with frangipane and fresh pear purée, the last of the pears picked up from the local orchards and left over from jam, before the door of our ancient oven dropped off, shattering into a million shards of glass all over the kitchen floor.
Clément was here to enjoy this year’s galette before flying back to Senegal and off to India for an architectural project.
Two weeks later, just a few days until we begin our second momentous year at the hotel, Clément is in India, Simon is back home in Nantes, and the renovation of Room #12 is well on its way.
And the oven has finally been replaced.
Pastry, Petitions, and Politics Part II will follow
- 500 – 600 grams cold puff pastry, homemade or very good quality, all-butter store-bought
- Egg wash (1 yolk whisked with 1 tsp cold water)
- Icing/powdered sugar for dusting the top of the Galette
- 2 ½ ounces (70 grams) sugar
- 2 ounces (60 grams) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 2 ½ ounces (70 grams) ground almonds or pistachios
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon rum
- 2 - 3 tablespoons jam or ⅓ – ½ cup caramelized pear or apple purée, optional
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 6 tablespoons (90 grams) sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter (preferably at room temperature)
- Small pinch salt
- 1 cup (250 ml) whole milk (I used 2% low fat but whole is great)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla or ½ a vanilla bean, split down the center, seeds scraped out
- 2 - 3 tablespoons jam or 3 or 4 tablespoons caramelized pear or apple chunks, optional
- Cut the puff pastry dough into two halves. Working one of the pieces at a time, roll each on a baking-sheet-sized piece of parchment paper into a large square/circle about ⅛-inch thick (the dough can be rolled out thicker for a puffier Galette but I wanted a rather thin Galette with more filling to pastry); the pastry should be large/wide enough to cut out a circle approximately 9 ½ inches (24 cm) diameter.
- Place a template (a ring mold, ring of a springform pan or even a dinner plate) on the pastry dough and, using a sharp knife carefully and slowly cut around the template forming a circle, being careful not to stretch or pull the dough. Since Galettes are not baked in a pan or mold, the size can vary as you like.
- Slide the parchment with the pastry rounds onto baking sheets. Cover each of the two puff pastry rounds with a piece of plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the pastry cream.
- Beat the sugar and butter together until fluffy.
- Beat in the egg, the ground almonds or pistachios, the vanilla and the rum. Add more vanilla or rum to taste, if desired.
- Place the filling in a small bowl covered with plastic wrap or in a lidded plastic container and refrigerate until ready to use. It needs to firm up before assembling the cake.
- Sift the cornstarch into a large heatproof bowl and whisk in half of the sugar. Add the whole egg and yolks and whisk until smooth and thick.
- Place the butter, the remaining sugar, the pinch of salt, the milk and both the vanilla bean pod and the seeds (if using a bean) in a saucepan and bring just to the boil. Remove from the heat.
- Pour the hot milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream or a ladleful at a time, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not curdle or begin to cook; this will gradually heat the eggs. Once all of the hot milk has been added to the egg mixture, pour it all back into the casserole and return to a very low heat. Whisking constantly, bring the cream to a gentle boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. The pastry cream may thicken rapidly but cooking for 2 minutes or so eliminates the cornstarch flavor.
- If using liquid vanilla extract, add it to the cooked pastry cream. If using the vanilla bean, remove the pod and discard; the dark speckles seen in the pastry cream are the seeds.
- If you want a bit of fruit in your filling, stir in a few tablespoons of caramelized pear or apple purée or small chunks.
- Immediately pour and scrape the pastry cream into a clean heatproof bowl, cover with plastic wrap, pushing the plastic onto the surface of the cream to keep a skin from forming. Allow the cream to cool slightly as you prepare the puff pastry; do not prepare this too far in advance or cool too much as the pastry cream must still be soft and creamy enough to easily spread on the puff pastry round.
- Remove the two pastry rounds from the refrigerator and discard the plastic. Choose one round to be the bottom of the galette and, leaving it on the parchment-lined baking sheet, gently press the edges out a bit with your fingers to enlarge the circle slightly.
- Mound enough of either the frangipane filling or the cooled vanilla bean pastry cream filling in the center of the disc of dough to a thickness of about ½ inch (1 cm) but no more than ¾ inch, leaving about a ½ inch (1 cm) – ¾ inch border of dough free around the edges. You can first spread a couple of tablespoons of jam onto the disc before spreading either the frangipane or the pastry cream (in this case without the fruit).
- Press a fève, a ceramic charm of some sort, or even an old-fashioned dried bean or a coin into the filling, if desired.
- Brush the edge all around with a light coating of water (too wet and the top disc may slide during baking). Gently place the second disc of dough on top of the filling placing the top and bottom discs’ edge to edge (so the edges meet all the way around), gently stretching the top disc if needed so the edges line up. Press to seal tightly, pressing to have at least one finger width of pastry around all the edges well sealed.
- Using a sharp knife held perpendicular to the table, cut into the side edges of the dough to create a scalloped edge all around to the cakes. Now carefully carve a design into the top of the cakes (not too deeply into the dough), making a 3 to 5 small vents through the dough.
- Brush the top and sides of the galette lightly with egg wash. Place the baking tray in the refrigerator for the time the oven takes to preheat.
- Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C).
- Place the baking tray with the Galette in the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes until the pastry is puffed up and golden.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F (200°C) and continue baking for an additional 25 - 30 minutes until the top and the sides of the pastry are a deep golden and crisp and the pastry is well risen. If you think the pastry is browning too quickly, simply lay a piece of foil over the top.
- Remove the Galette from the oven and move the rack up one notch. Generously dust the entire top surface of the Galette with powdered sugar (using a sieve or sifter) then place the pastry back in the oven. Now bake for around 5 minutes until the sugar has turned to a golden and very shiny glaze. Stand next to your oven and watch because once you have the perfect glaze it can very quickly, in the flash of an eye, burn! You must watch so you can pull it out of the oven just as the last of the top turns a gorgeous shiny deep golden and not leave it one second longer. This can also be done successfully with a torch.
- Remove the Galette from the oven and slide the parchment paper off onto a cooling rack. Allow the Galette to cool before serving.