Rosca de Reyes is a sweet bread, which is a special food for Three King's Day, known as "Día de Reyes" in Spanish, and celebrated on January 6 in Mexico. The holiday is sometimes referred to as the Twelfth Night because it falls twelve days after Christmas, but is also known as Epiphany, and marks the day the Wise Men or Magi, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar, are believed to have visited the Christ Child. On this day, Mexican children receive gifts from the three kings, sometimes placed in shoes that the children have left out overnight and placed hay in as a gift of food for the kings' animals.
"Rosca" means wreath and "Reyes" means kings, so a direct translation of Rosca de Reyes would be "Kings' Wreath". The sweet bread is shaped in the form of a wreath and usually has candied fruit on top, and a figurine of a baby baked inside (now made of plastic but previously they were porcelain or tin). This special treat is often simply called "Rosca." The traditions surrounding this sweet bread is similar to the custom of eating King Cake in New Orleans during Carnival season.
In Mexico, it is customary for friends and family to get together on January 6 to eat Rosca, usually accompanied by hot chocolate or another warm drink such as coffee or atole. Usually, each person cuts their own slice and the one who gets a piece of Rosca with the baby figurine is expected to host a party on Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), which is celebrated on February 2nd. On that day, the traditional food is tamales. Nowadays bakers tend to put several baby figurines in the Rosca, so the responsibility for making (or buying) the tamales can be shared among several people.
The symbolism of the Rosca de Reyes speaks of the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from the slaughter of the innocents. The shape of the Rosca symbolizes a crown, in this case, the crown of King Herod from whom they were trying to hide the infant Jesus. The dried fruit placed on top are jewels on the crown. The figurine in the Rosca represents baby Jesus in hiding. The person who finds the baby Jesus is symbolically his godparent and must sponsor the party when he is taken to the temple to be blessed, celebrated as Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on February 2nd.
Where to Try It
If you travel to Mexico during the period after Christmas and up to around the second week of January, you will find Roscas for sale in bakeries throughout the country. There are a number of variations, but the classic Rosca is made with butter and has some orange zest in it to give it just a slight citrus flavor. The top is usually decorated with candied citrus fruit and cherries and a quince paste known in Mexico as ate (pronounced “ah-teh”). Rosca is spongy inside and just a bit sweet. The candied fruit and sweets on top give it more sweetness. Some bakeries make special versions with different types of fillings such as custard, cream, or jam, and different toppings, and you can even find some that are chocolate flavored.
There are several bakeries In Mexico City that are known for producing particularly tasty Roscas. One of the most popular bakeries is El Globo, which has several locations throughout the city. For an authentic and impressive experience, head to the Centro Historico location of Pasteleria Ideal, which is a large bakery and cake shop, and before purchasing your Rosca, make a visit to the second floor where you can see a huge exhibit of display cakes which serve as a catalog for people ordering cakes for large parties and events. Another bakery with a long tradition of making Rosca is La Vasconia, which also has a restaurant section, in case you would like to sit down and have your Rosca there.
Order or Make It
If you won't be traveling in Mexico during this season, you can get your own Rosca delivered to your home by ordering online from MexGrocer, or if you're feeling ambitious, you can make your own. Remember if you host a get together for Día de Reyes, you should let each guest cut their own slice of Rosca, so whoever gets the baby figurine will have no one to blame but themselves, and you can expect a feast in February.
Rosca de Reyes is very similar to what is known in the Southern United States as King Cake, and the provenance of the custom is the same, with origins in Spain, but King Cake is eaten during the Mardi Gras celebrations prior to Lent instead of during the Christmas season.
Pronunciation: rows-ka de ray-ehs
Also known as: King's bread, King Cake