nference is an art. I worked in the heart of a French school, teaching English literature, where I used to tell this to parents eager for their students to progress in their studies: Help them infer. If you see a photo of a woman standing at a grave with flowers, for example, and at the same woman at the hospital crying, what is she doing? The parents, of course, looked at me blankly. She’s grieving. They got it. An overarching category for the two different examples.
Today I invite you to join me in deploying all your low-level inferring skills. Let’s start with the Galette des Rois served at La Maison Française in Rochester, NY.
READER: That sounds pretty straight-forward.
ME: Doesn’t it?
WHAT ARE THESE THINGS ANYWAY?
At the time of the Epiphany in France, which is 6 January, the bakeries are filled with stuffed puff pastry, an extravaganza, usually with ground almonds (frangipane) although sometimes fruit. This pastry is called la galette des rois, (the cake of kings), with one or two figurines (la fève) in each pastry. They also come with two crowns. The person who finds the fève is given a gold cardboard crown and is queen (or king) for the evening. A second crown is handed out to make a pair. King and Queen. In fact, the bakeries serve these all the month of January and often families will get together to enjoy them. The youngest child crawls under the table and calls out the name of the person who’ll be given the next slice of the cake.
Thousands of miles away from Paris, a party serving les galettes des rois was held at the end of January on a pretty, snowy day. This was my first participation at the French House located on the Nazareth College campus, an event sponsored by the Alliance Française. I gave my name at the desk to a lovely French woman, the wife of one of our pétanque players. “Bonjour,” we each said, and that was it for small talk. The Alliance Française was in need of two Vice Presidents, and would I care for the task? For either task? What do we infer from this mass exodus of Vice Presidents? I would prefer to work on the events, I said. Well, they didn’t have that. The discussion was tabled when, fortunately, more guests arrived who needed registering.
I moseyed on inside and found adults and children congregating in a porch-like room off the living room. Ah, the family quarters, right? Yes, a French woman answered. I say French because her French was fluent, that is to say, rapid. Her parents, who are French, live in Los Angeles, while she evidently lives in Rochester, since there she was, and she grew up in the States. Now, how does this all fit together? Did she go to a French school in the States? Or visit often in France? Did relatives from France visit enough for her to establish French in her head? If I asked her all these questions, she would begin to wonder if next I were going to ask her to establish an alibi for the night of Tuesday, January 12th.
The school’s French club was introduced, its officers marched in. In English they gave an impassioned account of their activities to a handful of students gathered in the crowd, while the rest of us looked gamely on. The two groups were bonding? Or so I inferred. I had been in the hands of a French club once before. Eager to keep up my French I went to another university in the area, French conversation open to all. It turns out a dozen students and I played Pictionary together. Each participant was given a French word, such as my word, “le bateau.” I drew a boat, dutifully, beautifully. Somebody said, wait for it, “le bateau.” Happily, there were no boats this evening.
READER: This is getting long winded. But why wasn’t the other French club invited?
ME: I was beginning to feel in over my head.
The galettes were served. Homemade by a dedicated member of the Alliance Française, maybe the president? For some reason, the likes of which even I could not infer, each of our names was pulled out of a hat, one at a time. Only then did we receive a slice of galette. I was number 59 out of 60. But, get this: I got the fève! My little figurine was a Sponge Bob character, tucked inside the galette. Sponge Bob? So I am lucky for a year. And you, dear Reader, are also lucky. We have guilt by association. So why not infer luck by association?
After all that, I thought why not look into the history of the Galette des Rois? I expected to see the Epiphany mentioned, when the three kings visited the birthplace of Christ. France, Christian country. King’s cake, representing the three kings. Originally la fève was a bean. And then, look what I found. In ancient Rome, during a Saturnalia, I guess near the solstice, the slaves were apparently given one day off. By lottery, a king of the festival was chosen to rule over all for one day. Where are the cakes? What are we to make of this? We are kings and queens for a day? Then go back to being slaves? Is that where the show “Queen for a Day” originated, where whoever had the greatest miseries and therefore the most intense applause won a new washing machine?
READER: Ignore ancient Rome.
ME: Okay. Another person said the real story was an aspiring French baker, trying to make a buck. Or a franc.
Even though the season has come to an end, I’ve included a recipe to practice over the coming months. It is not traditional, but what could go wrong with apricot jam? (And rum!)
Galette des Rois
- 400g ready-made puff pastry
- 2 rounded tbsp apricot jam
- 100g softened butter
- 100g caster sugar (we can infer this is sugar?)
- 1 lighly beaten egg
- 100g ground almond
- 2 tbsp cognac or dark rum
- STEP 1
Heat the oven to 200C / 400 F / gas 6.
- STEP 2
Divide the ready-made puff pastry in half, roll out each piece and cut into a 25cm round. Put one round on a baking sheet and spread with the apricot jam to within 2cm of the edges.
- STEP 3
Beat together the softened butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg. Stir in the ground almonds and cognac or dark rum.
- STEP 4
Spoon the mixture over the jam, spreading it evenly. Brush the edges of the pastry with water, then cover with the second piece, pressing the edges to seal. Mark the top of the pastry from the centre to the edges like the spokes of a wheel or in a zig zag pattern, then brush with beaten egg.
- STEP 5
Bake for 25-30 mins until crisp and golden. Serve warm or cold.
We are thousands of miles away from Vladimir and Estragon, from the French countryside, or from the Irish countryside, for that matter. And yet I can’t help but wonder if those two were the two kings, say, having won the crowns, could we infer that to be a fitting transformation for them as beloved as they have become, even if it is only for one day?