Don’t Wait til Mardi Gras for Your King Cake, Celebrate Tres Reyes This Weekend

The New Orleans classic has its roots in the roscon de reyes, a Spanish treat for the 12th day of Christmas

A Roscon de Reyes, courtesy of Tamorlan
A Roscon de Reyes, courtesy of Tamorlan Wikicommons

For years I thought it was just because the Spanish like a good party that they dragged their Christmas celebrations out until the night of January 5, when they had another round of parades and gift giving for Los Reyes Magos, the coming of the Three Kings, also known as Tres Reyes, or simply Reyes. It’s only recently that it clicked that, actually, they got it right. While the rest of us are waiting for Santa to deliver his celebratory gifts for Christmas, Jesus didn’t actually get any until 12 days later, when Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar finally showed up with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in Spain and many Latin American countries, and it’s only a couple of decades since it really wasn’t much of a celebration at all. Navidad has become more important these days, and while most families gather together for a large meal on Christmas Eve, usually beginning with a fish soup followed by seafood, jamón serrano, cheeses and various cold cuts, there isn’t really any traditional food specific to the occasion. For the day of Tres Reyes, though, when the kids have opened the presents they found in a shoe placed under the Christmas tree the night before, no home would be complete without a Roscón de Reyes, or Rosca de Reyes if you live in Mexico or Puerto Rico, the two Western Hemisphere countries most likely to celebrate Tres Reyes. The Spaniards brought the tradition of celebrating the Epiphany and sharing the Rosca to the New World.

The Three Kings Bread is a sweet loaf baked in a ring – think fat, circular panettone decorated with dried figs, quince, cherries, candied fruits to symbolise the precious stones in a crown, and with thrombosis levels of white sugar scattered on top, and there you have it. Some recipes call for dates and honey to be used, but these are considered mere folderols added to the recipe by upstarts who can’t realise that some good things don’t need improving. Sound familiar? The New Orleans tradition of the King Cake comes from this same tradition.

Just as no resident of Valencia can ever agree on where to eat the best paella, everyone swears absolutely that they know the best Roscón baker in their city, never mind in their own barrio. A proper Roscón needs to be freshly baked, or at the very least out of the oven in the last twelve hours. On the evening of Tres Reyes lines form outside bakeries late in the evening as devotees collect their pre-ordered cake, and if you don’t have your Roscón booked by mid-November, forget it. You will be reduced to the ignominy of buying one from the supermarket shelves. If you are really lucky, your baker will open for a couple of hours on the morning of the big day so you can enjoy it fresh from the oven with a cup of chocolate so thick the spoon stands upright in it. (In Mexico the Rosca forms part of the evening celebration and is usually accompanied by corn tamales.)

The shape of the Roscón is round, to signify a king’s crown, although these days you can also find it baked as an oval. According to one wit at my local bakery, they are baked that way because baker’s ovens aren’t usually big enough to make huge family-size versions, particularly the size of the families the Spanish gather together for their celebratory fiestas.

Traditionally each person cuts his own slice, carefully inspecting it for one of two things, a small figure of Jesus or a faba bean. The idea of the figurine hidden in the cake is to symbolise being hidden away from the wrath of King Herod, after he had ordered all male infants recently born in Bethlehem to be put to the sword when he heard that the rightful King of the Jews was about to be born. As Jesus was born in a stable and not in an inn as would have been expected, he was saved, effectively hidden from view, as is the figure in the cake. Whoever finds him is King for the day, and has to host a party on the Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day) which takes place on February 2. Yet another excuse for extending the party. Unfortunately for the person who finds the faba bean, he has to pay for next year’s roscón.

Derek Workman is a guest blogger for Food and Think. He writes about Spain and Morocco at

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