Who doesn’t like a good food story? This one is possibly my favourite.
In the 16th century, Signor Pompeo Frangipani, Marquis and Marshal of Louis XIII in the royal court of France, needed something to hide the strong smell of his leather gloves. He invented a concoction made with bitter almonds, which worked a treat. The perfume was so successful that soon, gentlemen started using it to court ladies; it became referred to as the era of “the Frangipane Fashion”.
When Frangipani’s pastry chef learned the secret of his fragrance he immediately created an edible version, and a new pastry cream, frangipane, came to be.
In France, the most famous way to consume frangipane is in the galette des roi (“king’s pie”), a tradition followed nationwide just after Christmas during the Epiphany. The dessert consists of two layers of buttery, flaky puff pastry enclosing an almond and pastry cream mixture (traditional frangipane). A fève, a little ceramic nativity figurine (santon), is hidden in the middle; whoever finds it in their slice is crowned king or queen, and it becomes their duty to supply the next galette des roi. This can last for weeks, until the bakeries stop producing them.
Pithiviers, where this cake originated from in the 17th century, is in fact my town of birth and it’s not known for much more than this—the cake, not amy birth. Although it’s only a 30-minute drive from my home town of Orleans, I have never been back. I have made up for it by consuming many pithiviers in my lifetime.
There are two sorts of pithiviers, the buttery, flaky one presented here, and the less popular version in which the cake is covered with fondant icing and glacé fruits, which is believed to be the oldest recipe.
This pithiviers is more or less a galette des rois without the fève. To make it more festive add a small ceramic (no plastic) figurine. Traditionally, the main difference between the two is that the galette recipe is a mixture of two-thirds almond cream and one-third pastry cream. That said, it is fairly common these days to find them with frangipane cream only, and you could use the following recipe for the Epiphany without offending anyone.
This recipe came together after a great deal of testing—not that we would complain, it is absolutely delicious, but our hips might have grown a teensy bit from the butter overload. The problem was that the frangipane kept running out of the pastry during the baking process. Eventually, Martha Stewart’s trick of freezing the frangipane prior to enclosing it between the two pastry sheets, along with sealing the lid and base together using egg wash and pressing the edges with a fork, led to success.
You may like to try something new and take your puff pastry to the next level by using cold pouring cream instead of water. It sounds peculiar (and extra fatty) but the butterfat from the cream will make for greater flavour, layers and crispiness according to Sarabeth Levine in her book Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours (published by Rizzoli, 2010). I tried both, noticeably different but equally good results, so the choice is yours.