by David Cecelski
Today Mexican and Central American immigrants here in Durham have been celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. In Christian tradition, Epiphany, or Día de Reyes (Day of Kings), is the day that the three Magi, or Wise Men, reached Bethlehem and first paid homage to the infant Jesus. Epiphany is one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. It’s also the day that the Magi, not Santa, leave gifts for children in most of Latin America. And here, as throughout Latin America, bakers prepare a special sweet yeast cake, called Rosca de Reyes, or Three Kings Cake, to eat with hot chocolate after the presents are opened.
Bakers make the Rosca de Reyes in the oval shape of a king’s crown and bedeck them with dried and candied fruits that symbolize the crown’s jewels. They’re usually flavored with anise, vanilla, and cinnamon. The outside of the cake is glazed with a mixture of egg, sugar, butter, and sometimes orange blossom water. It’s often decorated with colored sugars, too. Inside the cake, the baker conceals a bean, coin, or little plastic figure of the baby Jesus. They all represent the Christ child and Mary and Joseph’s struggle to hide the child from King Herod’s soldiers.
Traditionally, whoever finds the bean, coin, or figurine is obliged to make a new dress for the infant Jesus in the Nativity Scene and to prepare the tamales, chocolate, and atole (a hot, sweet drink thickened with corn flour) for the celebration of Candlemas on February 2nd. Candlemas marks the day that Mary first presented Jesus to the temple, which, by Jewish law, occurred 40 days after a child’s birth. Candlemas concludes the 40-day celebration of Christmas that is typical in most of Latin America.
The tradition of celebrating Epiphany with a Three Kings Cake is very old. Many cultural historians date the cake’s first appearance to France in the Middle Ages. Others look as far back as the Romans. The cakes are widespread in Latin America, but are also popular in Spain, France,Switzerland, and other parts of Europe.
This city’s Latino bakers have made hundreds of Rosca de Reyes in the last couple days. I found the cake in the photograph above at Panadería y Pastelería Los Reyes, the bakery located in Compare Food’s incredible, international supermarket off Roxboro Road, and sent it to my daughter. The second cake came from Panadería La Loma on Hillsborough Road and was a gift for a friend.