Growing up in a Mexican American family, my fondest childhood memories always involve the Christmas season. During this time of year, my family and I travel to Mexico City to visit loved ones. When we are reunited, I not only feel a renewed connection but a replenishing of our culture. Throughout the years, our family matriarchs have passed down traditions and taught us, the new generations, the importance behind our Mexican customs.
One holiday baking tradition we cherish is the Rosca de Reyes or “Wreath of the Kings,” a traditional sweet bread eaten every January 6 for Día de Los Reyes, Three Kings Day. Also known as Epiphany, the holiday is celebrated throughout the Christian world.
According to the Bible, Three Wise Men travel from the East to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king. They meet with King Herod who instructs the Magi that once the baby is found, they should return to tell him so that he can worship him as well. But he plans to kill the baby, fearing the emergence of a new ruler. Following a star, the Wise Men travel to Bethlehem and find the baby Jesus with his mother Mary. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When I was a child, my cousins and I wrote letters to the Magi in hopes of receiving gifts too. On January 5, each of us tucked a letter in a shoe and placed them under the Christmas tree. The next morning, we rushed downstairs and were amazed to find presents near the shoes. The Three Wise Men are very important to Christians in Mexico and to the lore surrounding the rosca. In the United States, children typically wait to take pictures with Santa Claus, but my cousins lined up to take photos with the Magi.
My family in Mexico would typically purchase roscas at their local bakeries, where their fresh aroma filled the street. But for the last four winters, I was stuck in Arizona, unable to visit my family in Mexico. I didn’t feel the same sentiments for the roscas in my hometown, not when the other half of my heart was so far away. Thankfully, my family and I were able to visit this year, and what a joyous reunion it was. I was feeling nostalgic for the sweet taste of the rosca and wanted to savor every moment with my family.
I decided this year was going to be different: I asked my aunt, Tía Laura, if we could make a rosca together.
A gentle smile crossed her face and she began laying out the ingredients, explaining the process as she went along. My niece Dani joined us. Although she is eight years old, she might have more baking experience than I do. As someone who had only baked with premade cookie dough and even failed at that, I wondered what I set myself up for.
Tía Laura said we must begin by making the basa madre, or “base mother.” I’m sure a puzzled look crossed my face. She told me that the union of several ingredients brings the rising dough to double its size and that the mix is called the base mother because it’s similar to how a mother gives birth to a child. From this dough will be the birth of the rosca.
Tía Laura told Dani and me to knead the dough until smooth. Masterfully, my aunt kneaded a perfect ball. My eyes followed every movement of her hands, yet my portion devolved into a sticky mess. I glanced at Dani. Her dough was looking more and more like my aunt’s. A frustrated chuckle escaped my lips as my dough broke into crumbs.
“Knead the dough like how you would wash clothes by hand,” my aunt said, before realizing the generational difference between us. I had never washed clothes in that way. We stopped to laugh. My aunt took what was left of my dough and, like magic, turned it into a smooth ball. I am amazed at how effortlessly she went about the recipe and how she instructed us, her students, with such patience.
After the dough had risen, we formed the rosca into an oval shape to symbolize a crown and the infinite and eternal love God has for us. We then adorned the dough with toppings. Tía Laura assured us that although candied fruits were traditional—representing the jewels of the Magis’ crowns—we could decorate the rosca with whatever we liked.
The most symbolic and important step is to place tiny baby Jesus figures within the dough. In the biblical story, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, so they take secret routes back to their own countries. Outraged at the deception, Herod orders his men to kill all boys two years old and younger living in and near Bethlehem. Unbeknownst to Herod, the Holy Family had already fled to Egypt. The baby Jesus dolls must be discreetly concealed within the dough to represent the time Jesus hid from Herod’s persecution.
Tía Laura handed us the plastic figurines. Dani’s expression lit up as she placed the dolls throughout the rosca. I reveled in the fact that I now knew where the dolls were hidden—until Dani and I lost track of how many we pushed in. Just as it should be, neither of us knew where the dolls were truly hidden.
My aunt made the sign of the cross over the rosca and placed it in the oven just as our family began to enter the house. Grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and everyone in between wove around the living room to welcome each other. I stumbled my way back to the kitchen through a sea of aunts and peered into the oven at my first handmade Rosca de Reyes. It was done. Tía Laura carried it into the living room. The chaos of so many families packed into a small space evaporated at the sight of the sweet bread. As they gawked over our cake, I must admit I felt a bit proud.
The traditions surrounding the cutting of the cake are the most entertaining. If you find the baby Jesus in a slice you cut, you are responsible for making tamales and hosting a party on Día de la Candelaria, also known as the Presentation of Jesus Christ, a religious holiday held every February 2, based on the biblical story of Jesus being brought to the Temple for the first time. Many consider receiving the baby Jesus figurine bad luck since they must assume hosting and cooking duties, but it is also considered good luck.
I still hoped that I did not receive the responsibility of hosting a party for my large family. A family that numbers more than fifty people calls for strategic slicing. Everyone chanted my name, encouraging me to take the first slice. I hesitantly cut a small slice while my little sister called me a coward. My fingers ran through the middle of the slice as everyone watched fervently. To my relief, there was no doll, and everyone cheered. Then my cousin Tomí and Tía Vero pointed out the little white feet peeking from the edge of the rosca where I had taken a slice. The room stood divided as to whether such a thing counted or not. Hoping to distract them, I handed the slicer to the next person.
Through each turn, everyone took a different approach to cutting the rosca. The most daring among us flauntingly cut large slices to miraculously receive no figurine. Others like myself cowered behind our small slices to the playful taunts of the family. My cousin Tomí begrudgingly took a slice and to his dismay found the doll. His face scrunched up as the room burst out with laughter. Tía Vero then took a slice to find not one but two baby Jesus dolls.
“I’ve got twins?” she exclaimed, momentarily confused. We couldn’t contain our laughter.
Toward the end of the night, my mother asked who all found the dolls. Tía Vero brought out her two and Tomí reluctantly another. Three other family members, including Dani, held up their dolls. I begrudgingly accepted defeat, removing the figurine from the edge of the rosca. Seven members now share the responsibility of making tamales and hosting the Candelaria party next month. No matter how you strategize your slice, luck finds you in the form of a white plastic doll. Whether it is bad or good luck is determined by how you accept it.
My family and I love to tease each other over the technicalities of the rosca. However, no matter who finds the figurine, we all look forward to any opportunity to be together again. This is what I find most endearing about this holiday and tradition. After the Christmas season has supposedly come to a close, Latinos find more reasons to celebrate. This Día de Los Reyes is one I will treasure forever because of the new memories I made while making the rosca. Thanks to my aunt’s guidance, three generations embarked on this tradition and left with wisdom they will pass down to the next.
Tía Laura encouraged us to create our own future roscas with toppings and ingredients we prefer. Aunt Cecelia once hid gummy bears since she didn’t have the plastic dolls. Her reasoning was that bears are one of God’s creatures and there was no worry in case anyone swallowed them. I also found it fitting that the colors of the gummy bears added to the symbolic nature of the Wise Men’s jewels.
I can’t wait for next year to see what new twists we come up with. I am sure cooking disasters await, but I’m eager to create a rosca for every Día de Los Reyes. My aunt reiterates—whether you are making the rosca or serving yourself a slice—what is important is being with family. If you decide to partake in this tradition, will you dare to cut a large slice or will you seek the safety of a small slice? Whatever your decision is, be ready to face the jest and cheers of your family. Also remember to leave a shoe out the night before January 6 and the Three Wise Men might just leave a gift or three…
¡Feliz Día de los Reyes Magos!
Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of the Kings)
For the base madre (base mother):
½ cup warm milk (microwave for 40 seconds)
¾ cup + 1 spoonful sugar
½ kilo (4 cups) + 1 spoonful flour
11 grams (2 ½ teaspoons) instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon butter orange food flavoring
1 ½ sticks butter
1 teaspoon canola oil
For maiza blanca (white dough):
50 grams (½ cup) powdered sugar
50 grams (½ cup) flour
50 grams (¼ cup) vegetable shortening
1 egg yolk
La Flor de Morelia Ate Combinado Candied Fruits
6 maraschino cherries
Make the base mother: in a bowl, whisk together the warm milk, a spoonful of sugar, and a spoonful of flour, and the yeast until completely smooth, with no bubbles. Sit aside to rest for around 30 minutes.
In the meantime, form ½ kilo (4 cups) of flour into a shape of a volcano, leaving the center empty. Beat 3 eggs in a separate bowl with a fork and then pour into the center of the flour volcano. Next, pour ¾ of a cup of sugar, salt, vanilla, and butter orange flavoring into the center.
Once the bowl with yeast has risen, pour it into the center of the flour volcano as well. Using clean hands, fold over the outskirts of the flour into the center of the mixture. Begin kneading the dough into a ball shape until everything is combined. To help grasp the dough, add pinches of flour to your hands and work surface. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
Add butter into the center of the dough ball and knead together. Flour your hands and surface as necessary.
Lightly coat a separate bowl with canola oil. This will help prevent the dough from sticking. Place the ball of dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to let the dough double in size, around 2 hours.
Make the white dough: Mix powdered sugar, flour, vegetable shortening, and yolk in a bowl. Knead together into a ball and then cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Knead each piece into a ball. Pat the dough side to side with your palms to flatten. Shape each piece into a rectangle and set aside.
Prep the toppings: cut each of the candied fruits into 6 long and skinny slices.
Now to assemble the cake: coat a 9-by-13” baking tray at least 1” deep with vegetable shortening. Once the base mother dough has doubled in size, remove the plastic wrap and place the dough onto your work surface. Roll the dough with your hands back and forth to form a log. Once the dough is at desired length, place it on the baking tray in the shape of an oval. Make a small hole in the center of one end of the dough with your thumb. Connect the other end by placing it inside the hole.
Randomly submerge the baby Jesus dolls within the dough. Make sure they are hidden. Place the 6 white dough rectangles on top of the oval dough. Beat 1 egg and brush it on top of the rosca. Decorate with sliced fruits, cherries, and pecans on top. Sprinkle pinches of sugar.
Set the tray aside to let it rest and heat the oven to 170° C (340° F). Once the dough has risen slightly, place the tray into the oven for 30 minutes. When it’s ready, a toothpick inserted in the cake should come out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for around 10 minutes. Serve warm and enjoy!
Francesca Galván is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior majoring in animation at Arizona State University. She sends her love and appreciation to her family for sharing this heartwarming tradition with her.