The rosca de reyes has been a part of Dia de Reyes in Mexico for more than 400 years.
The ring-shaped, brioche-like cake arrived from Spain during the conquest, as part of the celebration of the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem on the Epiphany to visit the baby Jesus.
The origin of this sweet bread is said to be related to the Saturnalia during Roman times, a feast when people celebrated the beginning of longer days after the Winter Solstice. They made a round cake with figs, dates and honey, and they were passed around between the rich and poor for all to enjoy.
When the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, they introduced confections with almonds, candied fruits and refined sugar. The Moors also brought exotic spices such as anise and cinnamon to the region, which are key ingredients in many rosca recipes.
By the 16th century, the Spaniards had introduced Rosca de Reyes to the New World, where it became a traditional part of the holiday season and with it, colorful tales of its religious symbolism.
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Rosca de Reyes can come in various round or rectangular shapes, sizes and some even come with filling inside, such as whipped cream or pastry cream, guava, or cajeta (goat’s milk caramel).
Following the tradition in France (where the rosca is known as a gateau de rois) and Spain, in Colonial Mexico, a dry broad bean was placed inside the rosca de reyes as a symbol of the baby Jesus. When someone found the bean, he became the king of the party and would become godfather to a child in the household. With time, tradition changed and the bean became a porcelain doll, and today, the doll is typically made of heat-resistant plastic. Some bakers insert the plastic doll into the dough before it’s cooked, while others insert after it’s been cooked.
Sugar and fruit adornments
The sugared or crystallized fruits are made to resemble jewels, imitating the jeweled Wise Men’s crowns. Some bakers soak the dried fruit in rum or brandy for a few days for a beautifully perfumed scent. Traditional fruits used in Mexico include higos (figs), acitrón (crystallized biznaga catcus) and ate (fruit paste) in primarily red and green colors. However, the biznaga cactus has been an endangered species since 2003 and is very difficult to find nowadays. As such, most bakers use ate (pronounced “ah-tay”), which can be made with several kinds of fruit, including quince (known as ate de membrillo) and guava (ate de guayaba).
The sugar-paste coating also included in between the dried fruits may look familiar; it’s the same topping you find on other types of pan dulce such as conchas.
The one pictured below is an individual-sized rosca from the Mexican bakery El Globo.
Cutting the rosca de reyes
Families gather on January 6, the Epiphany, to cut the rosca. This tradition is also often observed in offices with coworkers in Mexico. Each person takes a turn cutting a piece, checking to see if they got the baby inside.
The hidden figurines allude to the Bible story when Jesus was hidden and protected from King Herod. While some roscas may only have one figurine, a larger rosca de reyes is likely to have multiple figurines baked inside.
When you get the doll in your piece of rosca de reyes…
According to tradition, he who finds the doll promises to throw a party with tamales and atole to all partygoers on February 2nd, Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas). Candelmas is a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, as described in Luke 2:22–40.
In some parts of Mexico, in addition to the doll, other prizes are added: if you find a ring, it means you will get married. Finding a thimble in your piece of rosca means you’re about to become single.
What to serve with your rosca de reyes
Families often cut their rosca de reyes together while sipping traditional warm drinks such as coffee, chocolate caliente, champurrado, atole, ponche navideño, or a tequila hot toddy for the adults. You might even like to have a little rompope!
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Where to get a rosca de reyes
In the U.S., most Mexican grocery stores and panaderías will carry rosca de reyes, and some bakeries also take orders in advance.
The rosca pictured above is from Bombon Cakes in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood in 2010 (it was pre-ordered). The rosca pictured at the top of this post was purchased from a Vallarta Supermarket in Los Angeles in 2019.12