A cake worthy of kings

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The fragrance of the cake is like no

For Spaniards and some Latin Americans who grew up with it, the aromatic
smell of the roscon de reyes
is one of the most treasured of childhood food memories surrounding the
Epiphany. The roscon de reyes cake makes its appearance on the tables of Spain
and Mexico each Jan. 6, but it is popping up regularly these days at the homes of
immigrants who now call the United States home.

The cake has simple ingredients for the most part. The dough
is a mix of flour, eggs, yeast and milk, allowed to rise in the shape of a ring,
leading to the name rosca
or roscon, which in
Spanish describes an oval shape. Popular versions are decorated with candied
fruits and sugar and glazed with an egg yolk to provide a shine. Some are cut
in half and stuffed with chocolate or cream.

The roscon, also called a rosca de reyes, has a unique aroma
well-known throughout Spain, and which likely comes from the orange flower
blossom water used to prepare the dough, said Javier Romero, executive chef of Washington’s Taberna del
Alabardero. These days, thanks to chefs such as Romero, you don’t have to
travel far for the experience.

Romero has introduced the ring-shaped delicacy — baked
exclusively during the first week of January — at the upscale Spanish
restaurant where he works. By and large, those who drop by to pick up the cake at
the restaurant are Spaniards or Latin Americans, said Javier Perez, the restaurant’s general manager. Romero began introducing the roscon little by little, making a few by hand
when he first arrived at the restaurant about six years ago. But each year, demand has risen. However, Romero said he likes to make just a few cakes.

“I’d rather have them be the best roscones in town,” he said.
And they certainly are. It’s hard to concentrate with the mesmerizing and
fragrant smell of the cake in the room.

Though the roscon de reyes does not yet appear in supermarket
shelves in the U.S., specialty bakeries and some Spanish restaurants that cater
to immigrants turn out thousands of these cakes in early January. Depending
on the custom of the country — or the baker — the cake will have a legume, a
toy, a plastic baby Jesus inside, or all of the above.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Urbano Vasquez, a Washington priest
originally from Mexico, said the cake always had spiritual symbolism for him, even
as a child: Jesus in the form of bread and sharing that bread with others, as
well as its ring shape hinting at God’s eternal love. He keeps the culinary
tradition alive and always orders his roscon de reyes cake from a
Mexican bakery in Riverdale, Maryland, to share with others, especially with
those who aren’t aware of the custom.

The cake evokes memories of gathering with family in his hometown
of Puebla, Mexico, a city known for its gastronomic scene. As a priest, he
loves that the cake is laden with profound spiritual symbols and can be used to

You could argue that its ring shape also is a symbol of the
crowns that the Three Kings, or Magi, wore when they visited the baby Jesus, he
said, and “the fruit, in its multiple colors, are symbols of the jewels they
brought, signifying peace, love and happiness.”

Chef Romero, also adhering to the custom of making the cakes
available to mark the Epiphany, makes 50 to 55 cakes each January.
Because of the process he uses to make them, it takes two days to produce in
the middle of an already busy schedule at the restaurant. The dough must
ferment at a particular temperature, rest overnight, and be just
right before candied fruits and sugar are applied. Only then are they ready for
the oven.

“I like to pamper them,” he said.

He enjoys keeping alive the custom he grew up with and
recalls memories of his grandparents in his hometown of Aranjuez, near Madrid, taking him to pick up
the roscon at the local bakery.

“For me, it signals the end of Christmas,” he said. And
there’s no better gift than to watch someone walk out the door, happy with a
cake that took days to produce.

“As a chef, it’s about the sense of smell, and that smell
that comes out of (it), there isn’t a similar one in the world ‘ it takes a lot,
a lot of pampering,” he said.

“I know we’re far but I want the public to feel as if
they’re eating (in Spain) ‘ when I see (the cakes) in their boxes, with names on
them and ready to be picked up, I feel as if I’m in Spain. And I like
contributing to that knowledge that others have of our culture.”

If you weren’t able to taste the roscon in January, there’s
still time to taste its culinary cousin. In the U.S., the cake has morphed into
the blue, yellow and green cake abundant in places such as New Orleans and nearby
southern cities and towns around Mardi Gras.

Anne Byrn, author of “American Cake,” said the cake “was originally a French, Spanish and Basque
cake, and it came to New Orleans with the Basque settlers in 1718. In its most
original form, it is a brioche dough (yeast) with a cinnamon and sugar filling,
left to rise in a ring, then slit at intervals, and baked. Originally, it
didn’t have a glaze, but some Vietnamese bakeries today in New Orleans bake
this cake and glaze it. Often, the glaze is colored Mardi Gras colors.”

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