This post is part of our Behind the Bite series, deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
Step aside, Christmas cookies and candy canes—here in Spain, it’s all about roscón de Reyes.
All throughout Spain at this time of year, families are sitting down to enjoy extravagant holiday feasts that last for hours, with conversation lingering around the table long after the last bite has been taken. The food itself varies from family to family, and you’ll likely never see the same spread twice. However, there is one constant in every home this time of year: the one and only roscón de Reyes. If the promise of presents doesn’t make getting out of bed on a cold January morning worth it, this sweet treat certainly will.
A distant cousin of the king cake enjoyed during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the roscón de Reyes (which roughly translates to—wait for it—”king cake”) is a round or oval-shaped cake that does not look unlike a giant donut. With a sweet, creamy filling inside and candied fruit adorning the top, it gives off the appearance of a jeweled crown. The filling and decoration of roscones can vary, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. First, let’s take a look at how this iconic holiday treat came to be.
A delicious history
Despite today being associated with the Three Wise Men of biblical lore, roscón de Reyes surprisingly comes from pagan roots.
A similar treat was often prepared for Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival celebrated by the ancient Romans. Their version was a round cake containing figs, dates and honey. Starting in the third century, the tradition of baking a dry bean into the cake caught on. The lucky person who got the piece with the bean was dubbed the “king of kings” and was treated like royalty for the rest of the day.
As Christianity spread and gained influence over the Roman empire, the cake slowly became associated with el día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, on January 6, a few weeks after the winter solstice. The first recorded mentions of what later became the roscón de Reyes in Spain itself date from the 12th century, and similar recipes were recorded in France at that time as well.
However, it wasn’t until the mid-1700s when the cake’s popularity really started to take off. King Philip V established it as a traditional holiday snack among the monarchy and nobility during his reign. The custom gradually grew more and more commonplace until even the lower classes were eating roscón de Reyes on January 6. It even reached Latin America during the colonial period, and is still enjoyed there today on the holiday as well.
Roscón de Reyes today
Nowadays, you’ll find a roscón de Reyes in every Spanish home during the holiday season, typically enjoyed for breakfast on the morning of January 6. Even the game that was introduced during Roman times has survived, but with a twist. The bean, once representative of the grand prize, has been relegated to a lower status—now, the person who finds it must pay for the cake. Instead, the winning slice is marked by a tiny figurine of a king, and the winner gets to wear the paper crown that most roscones include in the box.
Notice how we said “in the box”—that’s because roscón de Reyes isn’t one of those treats you make at home. The recipe seems simple enough. The cake itself contains basic ingredients like flour, yeast, sugar, butter and spices—but looks can be deceiving. It’s not impossible, but the laborious process means that the overwhelming majority of Spanish families opt to purchase theirs from a local bakery.
“It’s very difficult to make. The dough is complicated, and we even use special ovens here to make the roscones turn out perfectly,” said Mercedes, who works at Pastelería La Sultana in Cordoba. “A lot of people buy theirs rather than attempting to make it homemade.”
Nevertheless, the roscón-making process is a necessary labor due to the high demand for the cakes. According to Mercedes, La Sultana—a small neighborhood bakery—churns out more than 150 roscones every year.
When we visited La Sultana in mid-December, there were already plenty of roscones proudly on display despite the fact that Three Kings Day was still weeks away. The arduous baking process coupled with the demand means that many places start selling their roscones early to avoid a last-minute rush.
“People are already buying them,” Mercedes said. “For a lot of families, it’s tradition to get the roscón as soon as possible and freeze it until January 6. Some people even start eating it on the night of the fifth after the kings’ parade.”
Despite having been around for millennia, very little has changed about the roscón de Reyes besides the filling. The standard cream-filled cake might be the most common image of roscón de Reyes, but it’s far from the only variety. You’ll find roscones filled with everything from chocolate truffle to strawberry cream, and even some with no filling at all, which was the original version.
Even the dough itself can vary subtly from place to place. While the main ingredients are fairly standard across the board, each roscón has a slightly different flavor due to the spices and other flavorings used. We’ve found recipes that use anise, rum, orange peel, and more! Some varieties also include sugar or almonds sprinkled on top along with (or in place of) the brightly colored fruit. No matter what your tastes are, you’re sure to find a roscón you’ll love.
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Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.