Rosca de reyes is a colorful holiday cake worth celebrating



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Before Jan. 6 was that Jan. 6, it was always Día de Reyes Magos to me — a second Christmas of sorts with presents, the family and the wonderfully playful rosca de reyes cake with a surprise inside.

Día de Reyes Magos, or Three Kings’ Day, marks the arrival of the three kings who were guided by a star to Bethlehem. In Mexican homes, the holiday is celebrated with a rosca de reyes, or king cake. Like the New Orleans version, it’s a large ring of sweet bread with dried fruit and sugar paste on top and a baby figurine baked inside.

Here’s how it’s eaten at our house:

After dinner, my family gets the cafecito ready and calls everyone to the table to slice the sweet bread. Each family member slices their own portion in turn, cutting slowly and methodically to see if they can get a peek at what’s inside. Everyone holds their breath as the person digs into the bread to see if the baby figurine is there.

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If you don’t get the baby, you heave a giant sigh of relief.

If you do get the baby, the table erupts because it means you’re charged with hosting the family for a tamalada, or a feast of tamales, at your home. (If you are a kid and get the baby, good luck to your parents, because the family will be coming to your house all the same.)

But the cake is more than a sweet holiday treat. Each part symbolizes part of the story of the Magi.

The base ring represents a crown. It’s an orange-flavored bread shaped like an oval ring, although smaller cakes are sometimes round. The exterior is crusty, but the inside is soft and spongy. It has a sweet aroma of orange zest and cinnamon.

Next are the jewels in the crown, or the toppings. Candied fruits, guava paste, cherries, figs and sugar top the bread to make a colorful pattern of red, green and yellow. My favorite is the sugar paste, because it reminds me of the topping on a concha, a Mexican sweet bread roll. The toppings vary depending on the baker or bakery.

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And finally, the figurine represents the baby Jesus. Some cakes have only one baby inside, but we often find three or four in the cake at our table — perhaps so the burden of hosting can be shared.

I briefly considered making my own cake this year after not being able to find one locally. I scoured YouTube videos and naively decided that making one wouldn’t be a huge undertaking. Thankfully, I met a Mexican woman from the same region as my parents, and she recommended a bakery that produces an authentic rosca de reyes — just like I remember it.

Cake is not the only Día de Reyes Magos tradition. In some places, such as Spain, Mexico and throughout much of Latin America, the three kings take the place of Santa. Children leave their shoes out the night of Jan. 5 and anxiously await the arrival of the kings — Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar — who brought special gifts to baby Jesus.

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Many families celebrate differently, though. Some play lotería, or Mexican bingo, after sharing the bread; some make champurrado, a Mexican chocolate-based hot beverage; and some don’t exchange gifts at all. My childhood celebrations included gifts some years, but my memories always revolve around the cake.

After the rosca de reyes was sliced, we’d sit around the table and tease the prospective host, often throwing out wild menu suggestions. But the best part was waking up the following morning to enjoy yet another slice for breakfast with my dad, who loves sweet bread more than anything.

In many families, the cake marks the end of the holiday season. My dad always keeps all of our Christmas decorations up until the day after Día de Reyes Magos. For us, rosca de reyes means one last slice of Christmas magic.