Cooking Like A Mexican

Rosca de Reyes
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

On the night of January 6, Mexican kids go to bed early so the “Reyes magos” (three wise men) come and deliver their gifts. It’s like our Santa Claus. After New Years' and before this day people gather to share the rosca, in their homes, offices and schools. 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.

rosca.jpg

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.

The tradition comes from “Epiphany day” -which as a bad catholic, I am just learning now researching for this article- If my grandma on my dad’s side was alive, she would probably pinch my arm for being ignorant and a sinner. Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas on 6th January (or January 19 for some Orthodox Church who have Christmas on 7 January) and is the time when Christians remember the Wise Men (also sometimes called the Three Kings) who visited Jesus. The tradition of holding the reunion to celebrate the Day of the Epiphany comes from the middle ages in Europe, mainly from Spain and France. This tradition came to Mexico at the time of the early years of the viceroys.

Rosca de Reyes is a brioche type of bread that has about four baby Jesus figures hidden in it. The Baby is hidden because it symbolizes the need to find a secure place where Jesus could be born, a place where King Herod would not find Him. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their piece of cake is the 'Godparent' of Jesus for that year and has to pay for the tamales on February second, dia de la Candelaria or Candle mass day. 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, the 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. 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.

The sugared or crystallized fruits are made to resemble jewels, imitating the jeweled 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.

However, the biznaga cactus has been an endangered 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. Rosca de Reyes can come in various round or oval shapes, sizes and some even come with filling inside, such as whipped cream or pastry cream, guava, or cajeta (goat’s milk caramel). But the filled roscas are the farthest from traditional. Try your own!

For the bread:

8 ½ cups of flour (all-purpose is fine)

2 packets of dry yeast (levadura seca)

¼ cup of warm water

250 grams of butter

4 eggs

8 yolks

1 can of condensed milk

3 teaspoons of salt

1 table spoon of orange essence, or flor de azahar

2 pieces of star anis grounded with some sugar

For decorations:

1 beaten egg

1 cup of flour

½ cup of butter

½ cup of confectioner’s sugar

250 grams of crystallized fruit (some supermarkets sell prepackaged sets of assorted fruits specially for this)

Procedure:

Preheat your oven to 356 degrees Fahrenheit or 180 degrees Celsius.

Dissolve the yeast with the ¼ cup of warm water and add two tablespoons of sugar, let it rest until it doubles in size.

Sift the flour into a well and add the butter, eggs and yolks, condensed milk, salt, orange blossom water and the yeast mixture.

Start mixing carefully, once incorporated add the rest of the butter gradually until a soft and stretchy dough is formed.

Let rest until it doubles in size, an hour or two depending on the weather. Punch it out and roll on to a rectangle. Add the baby Jesus figures randomly and roll tightly. Then, form a ring.

For the sugar decoration, mix the flour, butter and sugar and form small balls and refrigerate for about thirty minutes.

Glaze with the beaten egg the top of the rosca and add the crystalized fruit randomly, take the sugar paste and make thick strips and arrange as well. Look at the picture for the traditional design.

Bake for thirty minutes until light golden, remove from the oven and let cool before serving.

Serve with hot chocolate and watch out for whoever gets baby Jesus!