So, what is Roscón de Reyes (Kings Cake in English)?
No doubt, that for many of us, Christmas is an important spiritual Holiday, but for even larger part of population it is also a “Fiesta”. Like all fiestas (starting from ancient times), it’s the time when we treat ourselves with all sorts of rewards compensating harshness of everyday life. Traditionally, “culinary festivities” are at the center of such celebrations and as most of us will agree – they wouldn’t be complete without sweets.
Having sweets in mind, in Spain (and especially in Valencia), Christmas celebrations start on La Nochebuena with traditional “Casca de Navidad” and ends two weeks later on January 6, at the celebration of Epiphany with a “Roscón de Reyes”. Historically, in the Christian world, Epiphany was the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, however later it also included another biblical event – arrival of three Magi (Wise Men) to Bethlehem. And, as it turned out (at least in terms of cake’s feast) – this event overshadowed initial meaning of the Epiphany.
The Roscón de Reyes is the ring-shaped, sweet brioche dough that is traditionally served for the family breakfast on the day of Tres Reyes. It’s usually eaten with cup of a hot chocolate and at that moment nobody cares about calories 🙂 It’s a holiday after all!
In the Spanish America, it is also known as “Rosca de Reyes”, in Catalonia as “Tortell des Reis”, in southern France as “Gâteau des Rois”, in Portugal as Bolo Rei and in the English world as “King’s Cake” (popular in southern US states – Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in weeks culminating with the Carnival).
Regardless the geographical region, Roscón de Reyes cakes have traditional ring shape. However, depending on local traditions, they can be garnished with whipped cream (more recently with mocha, chocolate, marzipan, truffle, angel hairs (cabellos de ángel) and so on….) and almost mandatory with candied fruits. The latter are typically chosen in red and green colors implying jewels in royal crowns. Usually, Roscón de Reyes are also aromatized with orange blossom water adding to it, widely-expected “godly” aroma. Well, even though in essence, the Roscón de Reyes is a simple, large doughnut, its preparation due to all decorative and symbolic details may be quite demanding!
All above names are highly symbolic and represent rather a cultural phenomenon than any distinctive characteristics of the pastry. Cake’s toroid shape symbolizes a royal crown, although quite often to exemplify this meaning, the cake can be also decorated with the colorful “cardboard crown” with a small doll inside, embodying the baby Jesus or one of tha magos (kings). According to some – it symbolizes the hiding of the fleeing Jesus from Herod’s troops. In some countries the symbolism went even farther. So, for example the cake may contain “surprises” like small figurine of baby Jesus (or coin) and a dry fava bean. Obviously, a person that discovers the Baby Jesus when eating its portion of the cake, traditionally will be “crowned” as the “King (Queen) of the day”. Discovering the “coin” implies future lack, while discovering the bean points the person that will pay for the next year’s Roscón de Reyes!
History of Roscón de Reyes
According to some theories, “Roscón de Reyes” has roots in the very remote past (well, cakes do not have the roots, they grow out of yeast 😊, but as we know, many of what we claim as Christian traditions were inspired by pagans’ rituals, so forget the yeast and let’s look for “roots”). Some claim that the inspiration for this feast comes from ancient Romans’ Saturnalia that were held exactly in this time of the year in a celebration of incoming Spring.
Apparently for that fiesta, round-shaped “cakes” decorated with figs and dates were shared with commoners. Well, frankly speaking – most likely those cakes had nothing common with today’s cakes but were probably closer to modern-day flat-bread which anyhow is “naturally” round (as the matter of fact, in the remote past, it will be difficult to make them square). Anyhow, it’s highly speculative idea, but hey, we always like to add some dose of “mystery” to our traditions.
With time, many customs of the ancient world spread over wider Europe. Undeniably, the predecessor of today’s Roscón de Reyes known as “Galette des Rois”, was appreciated at the court of the French King Louis XV. Also popular among French aristocracy, it found its way into France’s southern provinces where it was known as the “Gâteau des Rois”. It can be assumed that the cake came to Madrid with Bourbons and from there little by little it was gaining its well-deserved place at the Christmas tables all over the Spain. Regarding cake’s triumphal “trip” to Valencia, there are well documented facts. It happened at the turn of the 19th century when the renowned local confectioner Mr. Burriel for the first time offered it in his pastry shop.
The rest in the history (we may only take note, that in Valencia, the Roscón de Reyes replaced another traditional cake – “Casca de Navidad”). Interestingly, in striking contrast with Christian traditions in North-Eastern Europe where the Santa Claus brings gifts for children on Christmas Eve, in the Spanish world the “Gifts-Giving” day is traditionally associated with Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar (Magi) bringing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. During the traditional (and usually grandiose) parade of Tres Reyes, the “rain of candies” literally falls from the sky on children (well, from the carriages of Kings and their lavish entourage). Then, the custom is followed in private rituals at homes …