Rosca de Reyes
I haven’t brought myself to take down the tree just yet. It was love at first sight when I spotted it early December – shivering and cold on the corner of my block. A little plumper then the elegant, well-shaped trees on either side, I realized something about myself that morning, namely that I like a fat tree. Since I was staying home this year, I gave myself the luxury of a full-sized tree knowing I wouldn’t have to go away for the holidays and come back to find it dry and sinking on the stand. For once, I was able to use all of my ornaments big and small and it couldn’t get enough. No matter how many decorations I put on the tree, the branches just seemed to swallow them whole until we had to literally trim them down. If they made spanx for trees, I would have used them. On Christmas Eve, my favorite gift was a vintage Angel topper my sister hunted down for me so the tree was finally complete. In some countries, the night of January 5 that precedes it, also known as twelfth night or the 12th day of Christmas, is considered the end of the season when decorations should be taken down (don’t worry about looking it up – it’s 12 drummers drumming). I wanted to keep it up at least until Three Kings Day or Epiphany. Sadly, the time has come. El Dia de los Reyes, the traditional day for gift giving in Spain and Latin America, when kids leave out shoes to fill with presents and hay for the camels that bring the wise men, falls on January 6th. When I was younger, it meant one more present. We’d get together at my grandparent’s house to celebrate but it was always smaller and more intimate than Nochebuena and we’d see anyone who’d spent the holidays away. My great grandmother, well into her nineties, would spend hours in the weeks leading up to it with my mother, picking out present for each of us so that all of her great grandchildren would have something to open on Reyes.
Rarely observed in the United States, it had been years since I’d done anything to celebrate the day that was always falling mid-week, mid-flight, mid-blizzard. This past weekend, I was getting my kitchen back in order when I thought of the Mexican rosca de reyes from Fany Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico that I’d wanted to try. Made from a sweet, brioche-like dough, the rosca is shaped into an oval crown and decorated with jewel-like candied fruits and drunk with hot chocolate. Similar to the Spanish roscón de reyes, French gâteau des rois, and Louisiana king cake, fava beans or figurines representing baby Jesus are tucked into the dough before baking so that whoever finds it gets to be king, along with the dubious honor of paying for the cake and hosting a dinner on el dia de la Candelaria or Candlemas that follows on February 2nd, though traditions vary. I almost left it for next year when Three Kings Day lands comfortably on a Sunday and there’d be plenty of time to plan a real, traditional brunch – but then I decided to do it anyway.
Running to find a store open late on New Year’s Day, I found them all closed. Unable to will them open, I ran into a nearby deli to get what I could so I could at least get it started and leave it to chill overnight. The next morning while the dough was rising a second time, I was only able to find some dried figs and candied oranges – regretting that retro sugared-up, candied fruits were so out of style and out of stores. The non-melting baby Jesus figurines were not something I kept on hand, so my choice of fava beans was as much about necessity as tradition. Of course, when we cut it up, I had no problem finding the bean since I’d been the one to hide it. Whether it’s tamales and atole for friends in February or making another King’s cake next year, I don’t mind at all. It’s one more thing to look forward to.
Rosca de Reyes/Three Kings Bread
Adapted from Fany Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico. Gerson uses the same dough to make the rosca de reyes and pan de muerto. The original recipe called for bread flour which I didn’t have so I substituted unbleached, all purpose flour in equal parts. I had limited fruits available so I added lemon zest and tossed in raisins at the last minute.
Like pan de muerto, it’s impossible to stop decorating once you’ve started. I had a very fixed idea in my mind of how it should look, but quickly realized there are countless ways to incorporate spices, nuts. fruits, and add ins. The recipe yields enough dough to make two roscas. After the final rising, I set one in the freezer to make later in the week. The dough can be very involved and I thought it could be a good make ahead solution if it works. I’ll update then.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
2/3 cup whole milk
4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Orange zest from one medium orange
Lemon zest from one large lemon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
4 to 6 plastic, non-melting figurines or fava beans
3 ounces assorted candied fruits (orange, fig, acitrón or lime)*
1 egg, beaten
*For this version, I used candied oranges and dried figs.
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling (about 1/4 cup)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dissolve the yeast in the orange blossom water. Whisk in a 1/3 cup of the milk and 1/2 cup of the flour and blend until smooth. Leave in a warm place (about 70°F) until it begins to bubble and puffs up slightly, 20-30 minutes.
Put the remaining 3 1/2 cups of flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the sugar, salt, and zests and mix on low speed for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining 1/3 cup of milk, and the yeast dough. Mix at low speed until it starts to come together. While mixing, add the butter gradually, in small pieces until incorporated, increasing the speed to medium. Continue beating for 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is soft and comes off the sides of the bowl. If the dough is still sticky, add a little flour as needed but no more than 1/3 cup. Add in the raisins and incorporate into the dough if using.
Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or butter and place the dough inside. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm, draft free place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough, gather the sides together and flip over so the bottom is on top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. When ready to use, remove from refrigerator , uncover and place a towel on top. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place (about 70°F) and bring to room temperature, about 1 hour.
For the topping, combine the flour, sugar, butter and vanilla until well incorporated. Set aside or chill for later use.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line to baking sheets with parchment paper or non-stick liner and set aside.
Divide the dough in two large pieces by cutting not pulling the dough. Shape each piece into a large ball. Poke a hole in the center of each and shape into a large doughnut. Tuck the beans or figurines into the bottom of the dough at random spots. Set each rosca on a baking sheet. Lightly brush the dough with the beaten egg and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Scoop out the butter topping and form into desired shapes to decorate the cake. Top with candied fruits and sliced figs.
Place in the preheated oven and bake until the tops are golden and it sounds hollow when tapped, about 40-50 minutes. Slice and serve.
Makes 2 large roscas.