Rosca de Reyes is a sweet yeasted bread that has been a part of Dia de Reyes in Mexico for more than 400 years.
The ring-shaped cake, which is considered to be a type of pan dulce, arrived from Spain during the conquest, as part of the celebration of the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem on the Epiphany (aka Three Kings Day) to visit the baby Jesus.
The Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 each year.
History of the Rosca de Reyes
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.
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 the jewels of the 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. In some parts of Mexico, you’ll find candied pineapple, maraschino cherries, and other candied fruits.
However, the biznaga cactus has been an endangered plant 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 in Mexico City.
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 doll inside the cake represents the baby Jesus
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.
I have gotten many figurines in my piece of rosca over the years and I’ve kept almost all of them! The figurines have several names, such as el niño Jesús (the baby Jesus), el muñequito (the little doll) and el chango (the monkey).
If you plan to make your own rosca, you can buy these baby Jesus baking figurines on Amazon.
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 between Christmas and Epiphany.
If you don’t have access to a Mexican grocery store or panadería or you prefer to make your own, follow my recipe below.
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.Print
Rosca de Reyes is a ring-shaped yeasted sweet bread served to celebrate the Epiphany, though its cultural significance transcends its religious beginnings nowadays. Making your own rosca is easier than you think! With a basic pan dulce bread and toppings such as maraschino cherries, dried figs, candied citrus peel, fruit paste (such as ate de guayaba or membrillo) nuts (pecans or almonds are best), and a crunchy sugar topping laid out in stripes, you can make a delicious and traditional rosca at home.
For the bread:
- 200 grams bread flour
- 5 grams instant yeast
- 36 grams granulated sugar (I prefer Zulka brand, as I prefer the taste of unrefined sugar over white processed sugar, but you can also use regular white sugar)
- 100 grams whole milk, room temperature
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 40 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3 grams kosher salt
- Cooking spray or vegetable/canola oil to lightly grease a bowl for the dough to rise
- A few tablespoons of all-purpose flour to flour your work surface while shaping the bread
- 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature, to keep the dough moist during the second rise
For the crunchy sugar paste topping:
- 50 grams all-purpose flour
- 50 grams powdered sugar (azúcar glass)
- 50 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
- 1–2 dried figs, stem trimmed off, and quartered
- candied citrus peel (I like orange)
- 2–3 maraschino cherries, cut in half
- 2 tablespoons chopped pecans
Ideas for alternative toppings:
- ate de guayaba (guava paste), cut into strips
- membrillo (quince paste), cut into strips
- slivered almonds
- Measure and add 200 grams bread flour, 5 grams instant yeast and 36 grams granulated sugar to your stand mixer bowl. Mix on low speed with your dough hook attachment to gently combine the dry ingredients. Do not add the salt yet!
- Add 100 grams whole milk and 1 large egg and continue mixing on low speed until mostly combined. The dough will be sticky and lumpy at this stage.
- Stop the mixer and add 40 grams unsalted butter, then increase speed to medium (4 on a KitchenAid). After the mixer has been going for about 5 minutes and the dough begins to gather around the hook a bit, add 3 grams kosher salt, sprinkled around the bowl.
- Continue with the dough hook on medium speed for another 10 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when most of the dough gathers around the hook; sometimes it also makes a slapping sound against the side of the bowl.
- Spray cooking spray or lightly grease the inside of a large glass bowl with vegetable or canola oil. Turn the dough out from the stand mixer bowl and scrape out any dough sticking to the sides. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and a kitchen towel and place in a warm spot in the kitchen to rise for 2 hours, until doubled in size.
- After the dough has doubled in size, remove the cling wrap from the bowl and gently push a few fingers down into the middle of the dough to release some of the gas. Use a few tablespoons of all-purpose flour to flour your work surface and turn the dough out onto the flour.
- Put a piece of parchment paper down on a baking sheet and then transfer the dough log to the baking sheet. Arrange the dough in the shape of an oval. If it helps, you can use a small dish placed in the middle of your dough ring to help make sure your oval is even. Tuck one end of the dough log underneath the other and try to smooth the seam a bit with a wet finger (just dip your finger into some running water from the faucet; that should be sufficient).
- If you’re baking a baby Jesus figurine into your bread, this is the point where you’ll want to insert them into the sides or bottom of the bread before it rises. If you’re not using a baby, skip this step.
- Take the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of unsalted butter at room temperature and rub it between your hands to grease your hands up. Gently use your hands to pat the dough ring to help keep it moist during the second rise. Get as much of the butter off your hands as possible, then cover the dough loosely with cling wrap and a kitchen towel and allow to rise again in a warm place for about 90 minutes.
- While the dough is going through the second rise, make the crunchy sugar topping. Add 50 grams all-purpose flour, 50 grams powdered sugar, 50 grams unsalted butter at room temperature and 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract to a bowl. Use your hands to incorporate the ingredients until you have a completely smooth paste. Shape it into a rectangle and cover with cling wrap and refrigerate until you’re ready to roll it out.
- Once the dough has gone through the second rise, remove the kitchen towel and cling wrap and begin preparing your toppings by quartering the dried figs, halving the cherries and chopping the nuts. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove the sugar paste from the refrigerator and place it between two pieces of parchment paper. It’s important to work quickly at this stage because if the paste gets too warm, it will stick to the parchment. Gently roll it out into a rectangle, about 1/8 of an inch thick. Remove the top layer of parchment paper and use a bench scraper or very sharp knife to make uniform cuts to get 4 equal strips. All 4 sides of each rectangle should be straight-edge cuts. Cut away any excess. Drape each rectangle of sugar paste over the 4 corners of the bread.
- Place all your topping ingredients; the dough should be a bit sticky and it shouldn’t be hard to get the toppings to stay on. The chopped nuts sometimes need to be gently pushed into the dough a bit to get them to stick.
- Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 12-15 minutes, until the exposed dough starts to brown, but the sugar crust topping is still white.
You will need a kitchen scale to get precise measurement of the ingredients and a stand mixer such as a KitchenAid mixer and dough hook attachment to make the dough.
Keywords: Rosca de Reyes, rosca