U.S. Bakeries Grab A Slice Of A Latin American Tradition: 3 Kings Cake

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 1:39 pm

On Jan. 6, many Christians around the world will celebrate Epiphany, or Three Kings Day — the day the three kings came to visit baby Jesus.

In parts of Latin America, a big part of the holiday tradition is the rosca de reyes, or Three Kings cake.

It's a crown-shaped cake made of yeast-based bread that is very fluffy and airy once baked. The rosca is typically topped with candied fruits and bands of colorful, sugary paste. Inside there's a little figurine of a baby, meant to represent Jesus, and whoever is served the piece with it inside has to throw a party on Feb. 2, dia de la Candelaria. When the rosca is served, it's often dunked in a warm drink like hot chocolate or atole.

"It's a shared tradition," says chef Pati Jinich, the host of PBS's Pati's Mexican Table. "All of the Latin American countries that were conquered by the Old World inherited this tradition."

While Latin America got the rosca from Spain, another version is served in France. In New Orleans, the similar King Cake is typically eaten during the Carnival season and at Mardi Gras.

Jinich grew up in Mexico, where she says Three Kings Day celebrations are bigger than Christmas. "Everybody in Mexico eats roscas growing up — it's a big deal!" she says.

Rosca de reyes is becoming a bigger deal here in the U.S., too, says Jinich, as the Latin American population continues to grow. The diaspora has increased year over year and in 2016, it reached a new high of 58 million people.

This means a growing demand for traditions from back home — like ordering roscas from your local Latino bakery.

Carlos Benitez is the owner of La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria in Alexandria, Va., just south of Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Alicia, opened their bakery in 2002 after moving from California. Benitez bakes a savory and only slightly sweet, aromatic version of the rosca topped with candied red and green cherries, figs and plums. Between the fruits are stripes of color made from a sugary paste. In contrast, the New Orleans King Cake is typically much sweeter and covered with purple, green and yellow icing rather than candied fruits.

"The first time when we started making roscas over here, we just made 50 or 60, and year after year the amount of rosca we had to make [got] bigger," says Benitez.

This year the bakery is expecting to make around 250 to 300 roscas, he says, with more than just families purchasing them. Benitez says he's had more orders come in from companies and schools as well. And he isn't the only one. Many Latino bakeries we contacted around the Washington, D.C., region reported an increase in orders over the years.

In Los Angeles, where approximately half the population is Latino, Tony Salazar, chef and V.P of production for Porto's Bakery, says they plan to sell over 5,000 this year.

"When we started [in the 1970s] we only sold 10 ... and then, you know, 20 and 100," he says. "It's been a slow process, but we are really so happy that the popularity is growing and the recognition of this product is out there now. There's people who don't celebrate Three Kings Day who come and buy it, it's so good, and they enjoy it."

In fact, Porto's Bakery, along with other storied Latin American bakeries in the area, plan to unveil LA's largest roscas de reyes Friday. They've teamed up with the California Milk Processor Board for the free event, which Salazar hopes will bring together not only Latin Americans across the LA region but also others who want to share in the tradition.

Carlos Benitez of Virginia's La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria says spreading the rosca de reyes tradition beyond Latin American communities is a good thing.

"I'm so happy that people don't lose their traditions," he says. "I think diversity of the cultures make this country great."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow is Three Kings Day. It's an occasion celebrated by many Christians and especially among Latinos.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Aside from the religious symbolism, there's food. Many Latinos enjoy a hot drink and a traditional cake called rosca de reyes. Bakers in Los Angeles today unveil what's reportedly the city's biggest rosca ever.

INSKEEP: But you don't need to go to LA. You can find the cakes in just about any metro area. And NPR's Ashley Westerman found one in hers.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: In the back of La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria in Alexandria, Va., the giant oven is roaring.

CARLOS BENITEZ: Let me show you - in the oven already.

WESTERMAN: And when bakery owner Carlos Benitez opens it...

BENITEZ: OK.

WESTERMAN: Wow.

Dozens of huge roscas de reyes, or Three Kings Day cakes, can be seen going round and round on the oven carousel. Uncooked, the roscas are pale-yellow, doughy ovals. But the more they bake, the more they shine - literally. The cake is decorated with green and red candied cherries, figs, plums and glittery bands made of sugary, colorful paste.

BENITEZ: OK. These are the medial ones.

WESTERMAN: This is one of the busiest times of the year for Benitez. He's been making roscas since he opened in 2002.

BENITEZ: So we're going to make it all this week.

WESTERMAN: Baked inside are little, plastic figurines representing the baby Jesus.

BENITEZ: The person who got the piece, got the little Jesus inside - they're supposed to throw a party at the 2 of February, a tamales party.

WESTERMAN: Benitez walks me through how he makes the dough. First, he combines the yeast and flour. Then he adds lots of margarine, sugar, salt orange peel, orange juice, anise extract for aroma and eggs.

BENITEZ: It's ready. So start mixing.

WESTERMAN: The ingredients are mixed until the dough is no longer wet or sticky. Then it's unloaded onto a table and kneaded, then rolled into the shape of an oval to represent a crown. After proofing for a couple hours, it's decorated. These are the jewels of the crown. And then it's baked.

Pati Jinich is a chef and the host of the PBS show "Pati's Mexican Table."

PATI JINICH: Everybody in Mexico eats roscas growing up. It's a huge deal.

WESTERMAN: She says the love of roscas goes well beyond Mexico.

JINICH: All of the Latin American countries that were conquered by the Old World inherited this tradition.

WESTERMAN: And over the years, she's seen the tradition grow here in the U.S. along with the Latino population.

TONY SALAZAR: We see about 20 percent increase year to year for the last five years consistently.

WESTERMAN: Tony Salazar is chef at Porto's, one of the most famous bakeries in the Los Angeles area. They're one of the bakeries behind the 24-by-2-and-a-half-foot rosca de reyes being unveiled today in LA. Salazar says the first time they sold roscas in the 1970s, they only sold 10. This year, they're planning to sell over 5,000. He says other bakeries around the LA area are experiencing the same thing.

SALAZAR: We really are so happy that the popularity is growing. The people who don't celebrate Three Kings Day will come and buy it. It's so good, and they enjoy it.

WESTERMAN: Back at La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria outside Washington, D.C., Carlos Benitez says he's expecting to sell almost 300 roscas de reyes this year. And it's not just families placing orders. He says more companies and schools are ordering them, too. Benitez says this means the tradition is reaching people outside the Latino community.

BENITEZ: I feel so happy that people don't lose their traditions. I think that diversity of the cultures make this country great.

WESTERMAN: Ashley Westerman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEXICAN INSTITUTE OF SOUND'S "JALALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.