(Note: the following is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes and the recipe below is by co-author Adriana Almazan Lahl)
This is the day Mexican children wait for all year long, as they anticipate the arrival of Los Reyes Magos (rather than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve). It is the Three Wise Men who will bring them toys, just as they came to ancient Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. (In Mexico, for Christmas, it is more traditional for children to receive clothing). In many areas of Mexico, children leave out their empty shoes on the night of January 5, hoping that they will find them filled with treasures in the morning.
The holiday is also celebrated with the charming tradition of the Rosca de Reyes. This is “the Kings’ Cake,” a flour-based cake rich with butter and egg yolks, originally in the shape of a ring to echo a crown, but which has grown into an oval as it has “stretched” to accommodate larger crowds. As wheat flour was not introduced to Mexico until the invasion of the Spanish in the 16th century, the Rosca likely became part of Mexico’s holiday traditions sometime after that (originally, it was the Moors, invading Spain in the eighth century, who brought with them cakes rich in almonds, dried fruits, spices, and refined sugar—all key ingredients in the rosca).
Hidden inside the rosca is a figure of baby Jesus, either plastic or porcelain, to symbolize how Mary and Joseph had to hide Him from King Herod, who had been apprised of the signs that a new and rightful king of Jerusalem would be born and ordered all male infants in Bethlehem be put to death. The deadly search is symbolized by the knife cutting the ring cake. As with many Mexican holidays, on January 6 neighbors and family share the light evening meal, each having a chance to find the figure of baby Jesus in their slice of the rosca. The tradition of the Rosca de Reyes also extends the Christmas celebrations for another few weeks; the lucky guest who finds him is designated to host a tamalda, a party at which tamales and Mexican hot chocolate are served, on February 2, Día del Candelaria.
Three King’s Bread Ring / Rosca de Reyes Tradicional
(SERVES 8 – 10 )
3½ oz sugar
¼ cup orange blossom water
1 envelope (1 tsp) yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
1 oz powdered milk
Rind of half a lemon
Rind of half an orange
3½ oz butter
½ tspn. anise seed
4 tsp vanilla extract
Small baby figurine or toy, porcelain or ceramic (or several)
Concha Bread Mix (for decoration, see below)
¼ cup candied figs cut in strips
¼ cup candied oranges rind cut in strips
¼ cup candied pineapple strips
¼ cup candied cherries cut in half
1 egg, beaten, to varnish Rosca
COMBINE water, 1 tbsp of sugar, and orange blossom water and warm to 105°. Dissolve yeast in warm water and let it sit for 5 minutes or until it starts foam- ing. Place the flour and form a mountain with a valley in the middle or “volcano.” Place half the sugar, salt, powdered milk, and cracked eggs inside the “valley.” Using this area as your work bowl, premix the ingredients carefully with your hands. Once ingredients are well mixed in the center, add water with yeast and start incorporating the flour dry ingredients and eggs from the area around until all ingredients are well mixed and become a pliable, elastic, and smooth dough. Add the lemon and orange rind, the remaining sugar, dry milk, and salt and the butter and work the dough until all ingredients are well incorporated again. Place in an 18 x 14 pre-greased pan and cover with pre-greased plastic wrap (spray the wrap with spray shortening to grease it before placing it over dough). Wait two hours until the dough doubles in size, and punch once to deflate it. Cover again and wait an additional 25 minutes, punch again, and shape into a 10- to 14-inch oval wreath. Lift wreath carefully and place on a pre-greased baking sheet. Insert small figurine(s) into the wreath. Cover and let it rise again to double the original size. Place concha dough strips across the wreath, and sprinkle concha dough only with sugar, alternating concha dough with can- died fruit strips (cherries, orange, figs, and pineapple). Varnish whole wreath with beaten egg and place in a preheated oven at 350° for 30 minutes until bread turns golden brown.
Warning: Be aware of small figurines in wreath. Supervise children while cutting and eating this bread.
Concha Bread Mix
3½ oz powdered sugar
3½ oz margarine
3½ oz flour
CREAM margarine with powdered sugar. Once well mixed, add flour slowly, until incorporated completely.