The queen’s pancake

In all honesty, it is a little strange to be living in someone else’s family playing a role that is part family member, part employee. My au pair friends have started to refer to their host moms as “my moss” — my mom boss. When those people are one person, as you might imagine, the dynamic can be interesting.

After almost five months, I still have some difficulty navigating the world of mosses and dosses (“dad boss,” if you were wondering). Though I’ve been trying to make myself at home and be comfortable around the family, I cannot get over the fact that they are not my family, and that I work for them. Unlike the family I left in the U.S., I have not been living with them all my life, so I calculate my moves: am I eating too much? Is this too late in the day to go to their kitchen for a coffee? Am I bothering them? Stuff I never thought twice about at home is now always circling in my head. And, being a socially anxious 20-something, the solution I usually settle for is hermitting in my room alone or sneaking out to join my socially anxious 20-something friends.

But there have been moments that have broken the wall of over-calculating and made it a whole lot easier to live and work with somebody else’s family. One of them happened this week with something so simple as a pastry and a paper crown.

Les trois rois

At the start of the new year, people all over Europe celebrate what anglophones call Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany. In Paris, this holiday is celebrated all month long. And how do Parisians celebrate? By eating, of course. For all of January, boulangerie windows are filled with round, flat pastries called les galettes des Rois — the Kings’ galettes. What is a galette? Well, in English, it translates to “pancake,” but you might just have to see it to understand:

Galettes des Rois in a boulangerie window on Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris's 8th arrondissement. Many bakeries have festive window displays throughout January to celebrate and sell pastries for Three Kings' Day.
Galettes des Rois in a boulangerie window on Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. Many bakeries have festive window displays throughout January to celebrate and sell pastries for Three Kings’ Day.
Unfortunately, my only picture of galettes des Rois comes not from a quaint bakery but from Monoprix — the grocery store chain found all over Paris. It still gives an idea of the round, crackly crust and the required cardboard crown.
And here are the galettes at Monoprix! Even the big grocery chains cash in on the holiday fun, with a mandatory paper crown tucked into each plastic pastry box.

There we go. Parisians flock to the bakeries to purchase these “kings’ pancakes,” which come equipped with a golden card stock crown.

My host mom came in with a special galette des Rois and paper crown the other day from an artisan boulangerie that wins an award every year for its galettes. “It’s truly the best,” she said as she preheated the oven and pulled small yellow plates from a drawer. Soon, the galette was brown and crisp, and she set it on a cutting board in the middle of the table.

My “host sisters” — a word exchange students use to describe the kids in their host family but this is seriously the first time I’ve used it because I’m responsible for them the majority of days of the week — sat down and one of them cut us big slices. Slivers of pastry peeled off with the slightest touch of the knife.

We waited for everyone to sit down and then dug in. The pastry was airy and crackly — like a croissant. The buttery layers gave way to almond paste. The sweetness balanced perfectly with the decadence of the dough. It crunched and then melted, tasting homey and sublimely simple. Its warmth made it even better.

One of the girls ate her galette like pizza, holding the triangular slice in her hands. The others picked at it with forks, looking at it more than eating it because they were searching for something. Every galette des Rois has a small toy, called a fève, hidden somewhere inside. The lucky person who gets the fève in her piece is crowned king (or queen; I think it can be either) for the day. That’s what the little paper crown is for.

The six-year-old picked at her piece, lifting up the top layer of crust. « C’est pas moi, » she said. “Not me; I don’t have it.” Her older sister inspected her “pizza slice,” also finding nothing. She told me it’s better to eat the gallette with my hands, so I copied her style, still unsure whether my slice held the prize.

“I’m going to wait,” I said in English to the older girls and their mom. But before I could finish my sentence, I reached for the edge of the crust, about to lift it up. “No, don’t look!” the girls said. I kept on eating, OK with it being a surprise.

Then, a few seconds later, my tooth hit a hard spot in the pastry. I peeled away a tiny metal grown crusted in dough. Everyone let out a little cheer. “Hailey’s the queen!” — « Eh-leey est la reine ! »

The prize I won for eating a piece of pastry — this little crown that looks perfect on my windowsill.
 My prize for eating a slice of pastry: A little crown that catches the light on my windowsill.

The 11-year-old delivered the paper crown to my head. She had to readjust it because it barely fit. “This is a great feeling,” I said. The last bits of crusts disappeared into our mouths. The girl had told me, “you can only eat one piece of this.” She was right. We all felt ridiculously full.

I looked at the little gold crown, no bigger than a pinky finger ring. A fève can be anything: a little ceramic tiger; a golden lamp. They even have Star Wars fèves. I was very happy with this one: a crown for the kings’ pancake. Or, eh-hem, the queen’s.

“You can take this in your suitcase when you go back, as a souvenir,” the 11-year-old said. Sometimes I worry that my family talks about me going home because they secretly cannot wait for me to leave. Other times, like now, I think it just speaks to them knowing this is an experience we are trying to make the most of.

As of right now, these two crowns are definitely going in my suitcase. I told the girl that. “And it’s even better because there’s a memory attached to it,” I said.

The French word for memory is souvenir. Knowing that has lifted the cheesiness I used to associate with the word, reminding me what the point really is: to remind us of moments like this. Of one shared dessert that made me feel a little bit less like an outsider and a little bit more like part of the family.

Photos taken in the week it took to digest said pastry

A street art portrait off Montmartre’s Place du Tertre, where artists sell portraits on plaques just a few meters away.
It is always cool to see something from home translated to French in a bookstore. Minnesota author Louise Erdrich has made it a long way, including to the shelves of Librarie la Fontaine in Paris’s 8th arrondissement.
These are two things I consume every day here: coffee (sometimes in a really small cup like this here one) and yaourt nature — plain yogurt.
The view over the Seine toward the Louvre from the Musée d’Orsay on Saturday.
Two people inspect Renoir at the Musée d’Orsay on Saturday.

3 thoughts on “The queen’s pancake

  1. What a cool souvenir! I’ve been terrible about reading your blog but I’ve had it bookmarked, and I noticed and clicked on the little WordPress logo today. The details you include about life in Paris are so special. I love how you made this one moment into a piece that incorporates a family lesson, information about your life/work and descriptions of French culture. Can’t wait to visit with Roy after graduation. That’s still happening, right??


    1. Are you really thinking of coming to visit?! I would love to have you both. It would be amazing to spend time with you guys here. Thank you for your words, and for your editorly feedback. I really appreciate it. And thanks for reading, of course!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s