Friday’s French – galette, galet, shingles, gâteau, cake, pancakes, crepes, biscuits

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It’s galette des rois time again.  This is the cake used to celebrate the Epiphany in France, the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th, the day on which the three kings reached Bethlehem. It has become an essential part of New Year throughout the country and is practised in different forms that you can read about here and here.


But I want to talk about the word itself. A galette is a flat cake, based on the word galet or flat stone, the sort you get on beaches in Normandy when they don’t have any sand and which are called shingles in English. Galet is a diminutive of gal meaning rock in Gaul.

By analogy, a galet is also a small cylindrical or conical wheel used to guide or support a mobile mechanical part. Ah huh, I hear you say. We’d call it a roller or wheel in French. The photo will help you identify it just in case it might come in handy.


A galette is also a buckwheat crêpe as opposed to one made of wheat flour. They are very popular in Brittany in particular and now used almost exclusively for savoury crêpes.

A ship’s biscuit is also a galette because of its shape, not to mention the tortilla which can be called a galette de maïs.

And talking about biscuits, that’s a word that doesn’t have quite the same meaning in French and in English. You can use it to mean our biscuit, which is also called a gâteau sec (literally dry cake). A biscuit salé (salty) is a cracker or cheese biscuit (which the French would never use with cheese, I might add – bread only is the rule!).

A biscuit pour chien is a dog biscuit but surprisingly a biscuit is also a sponge cake. If you want to be precise, you can say biscuit de Savoie. And those sponge fingers (or lady fingers as they say in the US) that you use to make tiramisu (my favourite dessert) are called biscuits à la cuiller because of the fact that you use a spoon to put the pâte à biscuit (cake mixture) onto the tray to cook them.

Cake exists in French but almost exclusively means a fruit cake, but not what we call fruit cake in Australia. A French cake is always cooked in a loaf tin, is quite dry and has a small amount of dried fruit scattered through it. If it is made with olives or something else savoury, it’s also called a cake, as in cake aux olives. The main ingredients are eggs, flour, butter and baking powder (plus sugar if it’s sweet).

Except for gâteaux secs as mentioned before or gâteaux apéritif which are appetizers, the word gâteau is used for all other sorts of cake and even for rice pudding (gâteau de riz).

If you are feeling confused, don’t worry! It takes many years to get it straight. I am still calling dog biscuits “gâteaux de chien” and immediately correcting myself. We bought some recently to try and stop the neighbour’s dogs barking. I’ve yet to test them but my brother swears it will work. He says training dogs is a piece of cake. (C’est du gâteau). Now the opposite of that – ce n’est pas du gâteau is apparently the equivalent of “it’s no picnic”.

AllAboutFranceBadge_bisI’m joining Lou Messugo’s AllAboutFrance link-up today. For other contributions, click here.

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16 thoughts on “Friday’s French – galette, galet, shingles, gâteau, cake, pancakes, crepes, biscuits”

  1. Your tiramisu sweet sponge lady fingers are also Boudoirs on the packet bought here in France. I’ve just looked at the plastic box of what I’d call dog bicuits and Gamm vert have them as Récompense Education & Plaisir. The Dog does not mind what they are called.

    1. Ah yes, boudoirs. I had forgotten that name. I checked on the origin and it seems they were invented for Talleyrand and are called boudoir after his so-called “boudoir diplomacy”. To be verified …

      I bought my dog biscuits at Leclerc. I’m disappointed. I’m sure it’s better to buy Récompenses Education & Plaisir.

  2. That’s a really fun post about la galette des Rois! isn’t it a great tradition in France – so many traditions here are celebrated food!

    1. Food is a serious business in France! My daughter treated her work colleagues to a galette des rois in NYC where she now lives. She bought it from Kaiser’s but they sell the fève separately because of food allergies!!!

  3. I’ve always found the use of the word “cake” here funny, especially the way it’s pronounced as “kek”, and a cake aux olives or the like is so often terribly disappointing, unlike the divine galette des rois! I love January and the excuse to carry on indulging in buttery pastry when other countries are “detoxing” and eating soup! Thanks for sorting out all these different definitions (another one for dogs is “croquettes pour chiens”), and thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance. Bonne année Rosemary!

    1. Their pronunciation of cake is a little Scottish actually :). I think that cake aux olives has to be fresh or its inedible personally. Yes, you’re right, croquettes seems to be used almost exclusively for cats and dogs.
      Bonne année to you, too, Phoebe.

      1. I have thought that croquettes are the base, dry, crunchy food for dogs (and cats) that are fed instead of opening a tin/pouch of wet food. Kibble appears to cover that in the US?

        1. Yes, I just checked. Croquettes seem to be real food substitutes as opposed to doggy biscuits :). I haven’t put them into action yet because the trenches prevent me from going into the vegetable garden which is where I have access to the dogs I’m supposed to be training.

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