Home Culture What is Three Kings’ Day? Make Homemade Roscón de Reyes to Celebrate Epiphany like a Spaniard

What is Three Kings’ Day? Make Homemade Roscón de Reyes to Celebrate Epiphany like a Spaniard

by Jackie Dreyer

Our Micro-Sized Holiday Meals series scales down culturally-rich recipes that are traditionally meant for feasts, so you can get a taste of different holidays around the globe.

‘Tis the season of sweets, and baking is one of my favorite hobbies. But I live alone, so there’s no one to easily pawn homemade goods off on, which means I often end up forgoing a recipe to not be wasteful (nor overindulge myself). So micro-sized recipes are the real MVP, allowing me to get a taste of a traditional Spanish holiday recipe—for a roscón (o rosca) de reyes—that I picked up while living in Spain.

If you need cake to read about cake, head straight to the roscón de reyes recipe in English or in Spanish.

If you thought the Christmas season is long in the U.S., spend the holidays in Spain. It’s a running joke among everyone there that it’s a never-ending period of fiesta after fiesta, feigned disgruntlement at having to constantly eat out, drink, and stay up late with friends and family. (Hint: No one’s upset, not in the slightest.) For each important day during the holidays, there are special dishes or delicacies enjoyed, including Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings’ Day, celebrated annually on Epiphany, the Christian feast day.

Instead of celebrating Saint Nicholas Day, or St. Nick’s, at the beginning of December, Spain celebrates Three Kings’ Day. The two big highlights of this holiday include the cabalgata, a massive parade with floats, where candy and small gifts or toys are tossed into the crowd, and indulging in a piece (or three) roscón de reyes, a donut-shaped cake topped with candied fruits and nuts and filled with sweet cream. 

What Spanish words do I need to know for the holidays?

Make some spirits bright by showing off your festive lingo this year! Here are a few Spanish words and phrases that are good to know around the holidays in Spain:

  • adornos = ornaments (also, decorations)
  • luces navideñas = Christmas lights
  • Nochebuena = Christmas Eve
  • Nochavieja = New Year’s Eve
  • Navidad = Christmas 
  • ¡Feliz Navidad! = Merry Christmas!
  • Papá Noel = Santa Claus
  • ¡Felices fiestas! = Happy holidays!
  • ¡Feliz año nuevo! = Happy New Year!
  • ¡Salud! = Cheers!

And here are some baking terms that are soon to come in handy:

  • amasar = to knead
  • batidora = mixer
  • crecer or subir = to rise (dough)
  • hornear = to bake
  • horno = oven
  • levadura = yeast
  • masa madre = sourdough
  • medir = to measure
  • mezclar = to mix
  • rallador = grater

What is a roscón de reyes?

Spain’s version of a roscón de reyes is reminiscent of Mardi Gras’ King Cake, or if you crossed that with a fruitcake (except better, a lot better). This sweet, circular- or oval-shaped cake is eaten in every Spanish household on January 6, typically for breakfast. To honor the Three Wise Men, or Three Kings, this traditional Spanish cake almost resembles a crown, with the candied fruits taking the place of fine jewels.  

Is there a difference between rosca de reyes and roscón?

Have you heard this tasty baked good called a rosca de reyes, too? If you’re from Mexico or Latin America, the answer is absolutely. Roscón de reyes is Spain’s version, and rosca de reyes is the Mexican version. The rosca is often referred to as a “bread” more than a cake, and it’s prepared without the creamy filling.

What is the history of this pastry in Spain?

With strong Catholic roots, many people will likely be shocked to learn that this Spanish tradition has pagan roots. The ancient Romans used to hold a winter solstice festival, called Saturnalia, for which a similar cake was traditionally made. Over time, as influenced by the spread of Christianity across Spain, the now-roscón de reyes shifted to be associated with Dia de los Reyes Magos.

History shows the first mention of a roscón dating back to the 12th century, but this Spanish tradition wasn’t officially established until the mid-1700s under King Philip V. When an estimated 1.86 million Spaniards settled in the Americas during the colonial period, they brought the roscón with them, which is how Latin America’s rosca de reyes came to be.

What is the significance behind the roscón?

“[The cake is] eaten in remembrance of the Epiphany, when the Three Kings arrived to see Jesus and give him their presents,” said Coach Tania. That’s why “families get together for a huge feast” and to “unwrap presents brought by the Three Wise Men.” 

In fact, most Spanish families do not open presents on Christmas like we do in the U.S. While more people may now open presents on Christmas and Three Kings’ Day, the tradition was to exchange gifts on January 6, not December 24 or 25.

The cutest tradition on this holiday, however, is the presence of hidden trinkets inside the roscón de reyes and their meanings.

Inside every Three Kings’ Day cake, you’ll find two prizes—one good and one less so. The first trinket is a large faba bean (or an acorn, in my experience). If you get this in your slice, it’s “bad luck,” but only because it means you have to buy the cake for your family next year. The second is a small toy or figurine that varies every year, dependent on whatever the bakery bought and stuffed in there. (One year, I got a tiny Bart Simpson riding a skateboard.) This is the one you want to snag because it brings good luck to its owner throughout the coming year. 

How is this holiday cake made?

While it’s certainly possible to make a roscón at home, no one in Spain does. Remember when I said bakery? That’s because everyone goes to encargar (order) their Three Kings Cake at a local bakery in advance. When the cake is ready, all you have to do is pop down to the bakery and pick up your nicely boxed up cake. Many families even pick theirs up in advance and keep it in the freezer until January 6 to avoid a last-minute roscón rush at the bakery.

As you’ll soon find out, the ingredients are nothing otherworldly: flour, salt, yeast…the usual suspects. Sometimes, however, the most simple of recipes can be the most tricky, especially when it comes to the dough. Anyone who has ever attempted to make a recipe with yeast in it—be it bread, cinnamon rolls, or a roscón de reyes—knows that it’s important to measure wisely, work carefully, and not to skimp on rising time for the dough.

Do other countries have a pastry like this?

Spain isn’t the only country that consumes a Three Kings Cake—or some version of it. The U.S. has Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana, and its King Cake, complete with a tiny baby figurine hidden inside. France has the gallete de rois, also referred to as the Parisienne, made of puff pastry and filled with frangipane (almond cream and pastry cream).

Argentina makes a similar cake both for Three Kings’ Day and Easter, the Rosca de Pascua, and Portugal has the bolo-rei, consumed from December 25 through January 6. Even the U.K. has their version in the form of the Twelfth Cake, an elaborately decorated cake (or many small cakes) that doesn’t look like the roscón—but does similarly hold prizes inside.

And, what’s beautiful about a recipe that exists in similar forms in so many different places is that there is a level of creative liberty that can be taken in the way you choose to decorate and fill it…or not!

Roscón de Reyes Recipe

3 Kings Day bread recipe

Servings: 12
Active time: 90 minutes
Difficulty level:

Roscón de Reyes Ingredients
3 tbsp. dry baker’s yeast
1/3 cup whole milk (lukewarm)
1/3 cup water (lukewarm)
1/2 tsp. salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp. unsalted butter (softened)
6 tbsp. sugar
Rind of 1 orange (minced)
2 large eggs
1 tbsp. brandy
1 egg white 
2 cups assorted candied fruit

Decorative Sugar Dough Ingredients
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup softened butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 egg yolk

1. Dissolve 3 tbsp. yeast into 1/3 cup lukewarm water and 1/3 cup milk, making sure the yeast is fully dissolved before continuing.
2. In a large mixing bowl, sift 4 cups of flour and 1/2 tsp. salt and make a well in the middle. 
3. Pour yeast mixture into the well. Scrape in just enough flour from around the well to create a thick batter, sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and cover. Let it rest in a warm place for around 15 minutes until the dough is spongy.
4. While you wait, beat 6 Tbsp. sugar and 6 Tbsp. butter together until creamy. Set that aside. 
5. Once the dough is spongy, add 1 Tbsp. brandy, minced orange rind, a splash of water, and 2 eggs to it. Mix well until the dough is elastic and a bit sticky.
6. Add the butter and sugar mixture to the dough and mix until smooth.
7. Shape the dough into a ball, return to the bowl, and cover with oiled plastic wrap.
8. Once the dough has doubled, remove plastic wrap and punch down the dough. Knead into a ball and transfer to a lightly floured surface.
Knead the dough for 3-5minutes.
10. Roll it out into a large rectangle.
11. Starting from the long side, roll the dough inwards to create a cylindrical shape. Grease a baking sheet with canola oil and place a round mould (also oiled) in the center, wrap the dough around the mould to create a uniform circle by joining the two ends.
12. Cover with plastic and leave to rise for another hour until it doubles in size.
13. Meanwhile, prepare the decorative sugar dough by combining 1/4 cup of butter (soft) and 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar together and blend. Then add the 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. cinnamon, and 1 beaten egg yolk. Beat into a smooth paste. Roll dough balls in plastic wrap and keep refrigerated.
14. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
15. Once the dough has risen, remove mould and decorate with your candied fruits. 
16. Roll out your confectioners’ sugar dough and cut out decorative pieces. Design your dough however you want. Brush the 1 egg white (beaten) across the top.
17. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden. Cool on rack before serving.

Receta de Roscón de Reyes

Porciones: 12
Tiempo de elaboración: 90 minutos
Nivel de dificultad: 3

Ingredientes para el roscón de reyes
3 cucharadas de levadura de panadería
80 ml de leche entera tibia
80 ml de agua tibia
Media cucharadita de sal
480 g de harina
85.2 g de mantequilla sin sal, ablandada 
127.5 g de azúcar
La cáscara de una naranja, picada
2 huevos grandes
1 cucharada de brandy
1 clara de huevo
450 g de fruta escarchada (un surtido)

Ingredientes para la pasta de azúcar decorativa 
56.75 g de azúcar glas
56.5 g de mantequilla ablandada
60 g de harina
1 cucharadita de canela
1 yema de huevo

1. Disuelve la levadura de panadería en el agua y la leche tibia. Asegura que la levadura se haya disuelto por completo antes de seguir.
2. En un cuenco grande, tamiza la harina y la sal, y haz un pozo en el centro.
3. Vierte la mezcla de levadura, agua, y leche al pozo. Añade un poco de la harina del alrededor del pozo, lo justo para crear una masa espesa. Espolvorea un poco de harina encima de la masa y cúbrela. Déjala reposar en un sitio calentito durante 15 minutos hasta que la masa se ponga esponjosa. 
4. Mientras la masa se repose, mezcla el azúcar con la mantequilla y bate esta mezcla hasta que se ponga cremosa. Deja esa mezcla de lado.
5. Cuando la masa esté esponjosa, añade el brandy, la cáscara de naranja, una pizca de agua, y los huevos grandes. Bate todo hasta que la masa esté elástica y un poco pegajosa.
6. Añade la mezcla de mantequilla y azúcar a la masa, y bate todo hasta obtener una masa homogénea.
7. Forma una bolita con la masa, pon la bolita en el cuenco, y tapa el cuenco con film de plástico con aceite. Deja el cuenco en un sitio calentito hasta que se duplique en tamaño (aproximadamente 1 a 2 horas). 
8. Cuando la masa se haya duplicado en tamaño, quita el film de plástico y golpea la masa. Haz una bolita con la masa de nuevo. Pon la bolita en una superficie enharinada.
9. Amasa la masa por 3-5 minutos.
10. Estira la masa con rodillo hasta que sea un rectángulo grande.
11. Con el lado largo, enrolla la masa hacia dentro para crear una forma cilíndrica. En el centro de una bandeja de horno engrasada, pon un molde redondo engrasado y envuelve el molde con la masa, juntando las dos puntas para formar un círculo uniforme.
12. Tapa el círculo de masa con film de plástico, y déjalo reposar una hora hasta que se duplique en tamaño de nuevo.
13. Mientras tanto, prepara la pasta de azúcar decorativa. Combina la mantequilla con el azúcar glas. Después, añade la harina, la canela, y la yema del huevo. Mezcla todo junto hasta que se forme una pasta homogénea. Haz bolitas con la pasta, envuélvelas en film de plástico, y pon las bolitas en la nevera.
14. Precalienta el horno a 180°C.
15. Cuando se haya duplicado la masa, quita el molde, y decora la masa con el surtido de fruta escarchada.
16. Desenrolla la pasta de azúcar decorativa, y recorta trozos decorativos. Decora la masa como quiera. Cuando se termine de decorar, bate la clara del huevo, y aplícala con un pincel de cocina en la parte de arriba de la masa.
17. Hornea la masa durante 30 minutos o hasta que esté dorado. Al sacar el roscón del horno, deja que se enfríe antes de servirlo.

More on Hispanic holiday baked goods from Rosetta Stone tutors

Tania, who teaches Spanish on Rosetta Stone, shared, “I have tried something I think is similar to Roscón de Reyes here in Miami. I think it is a variation of crinejas o trenzas dulces that folks prepare during Christmas time in some Hispanic countries.” She also let us know there are many regional variations of this cake that people enjoy throughout December and January in Latin America.

“In Venezuela, we have our famous ‘Torta de Navidad,’ or Christmas cake, which is a brandied cake that is topped with dried fruits, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Costa Ricans add orange and cinnamon and call it ‘Queque Navideño.’ México has its own ‘Rosca de reyes,’ the closest version to the Spanish one,” said Tania. She looks forward to making this roscón de reyes recipe.

Interested in learning Spanish from tutors like Tania? Check out Live Lessons available in the Rosetta Stone app!

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