On January 6th, the Christmas season comes to an official close in Mexico. The exchange of gifts and slicing of the traditional Rosca de Reyes, a distinctive sweet bread, celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men and their gifts to the newborn Jesus. The secret of this seasonal delight is its promise of another party.
Hidden and baked into the bread is a small baby Jesus. Whoever gets the slice that holds the small figurine, is obligated to host a party, replete with tamales, for Candlemas on February 2.
The bread differs from the light floweriness of “pan de muerto.” Rosca de Reyes is denser and joy-inducing with its raisins, nuts and candied fruit bits. The bread, either in a round or oblong ring is attractive as a gift should be. The recipe below never fails and is a trusted favorite. It handles the dough a little differently than most traditional recipes; this one incorporates milk for a bread that is soft with a nice spring. It is celebratory, satisfying and hard not to stop at just one slice.
This recipe yields about 16 slices and comes from the very noble folks at King Arthur Flour:
Large mixing bowl
Small bowl or custard cup
Instant read thermometer
13¾ Ounces King Arthur unbleached all purpose flour
2/3 Cup whole milk
2 Teaspoons instant yeast
3⅝ Ounces unsalted butter
3¾ Cup sugar
2 Large eggs
½ Teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ Cup chopped nuts
Dried mixed fruits
1 Tablespoon lemon, lime or orange zest
Candied red cherries and orange peel
Toasted sliced almonds, pecans, or walnuts
1. For the dough: Heat the milk to a simmer in a small saucepan or at medium power in your microwave. Pour the hot milk over the butter, sugar, and salt, and stir occasionally until the butter melts. Cool the mixture to lukewarm.
2. In a mixing bowl combine the milk mixture, eggs, and yeast. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, and mix until a soft, smooth dough forms. You can also use your bread machine, set on the dough cycle, for this step.
3. Place the dough in a greased container, cover it, and set it in a draft-free place to rise until doubled (about 1 to 1 1/2 hours). Or let your bread machine complete the dough cycle.
4. After the first rise, deflate the dough, cover, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface; roll into a 20" x 12" rectangle.
5. For the filling: Brush the surface of the dough with melted butter, leaving a 1/2" strip bare along one of the long edges. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Add the nuts, mixed fruits and zest, and stir to coat. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the buttered section of the dough.
6. Assembly: Starting with the garnished long edge, roll the dough up jelly-roll style, working toward the edge with no butter on it. Pinch the seam together to seal it firmly, then bring the ends together to form a ring. To keep the bread round, grease the outside of a small bowl or custard cup and put it on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the ring, seam side down, around the bowl and tuck one end inside the other, pinching it together to seal it.
7. Flatten the ring slightly, and using a pair of scissors, make cuts in the dough at 1 1/2" intervals around the outside edge. Hide a doll or candy inside the bread. You can place strips of candied orange peel in the cuts to create the look in the photo at the top of the recipe. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until nearly doubled (about 30 to 40 minutes).
8. To bake: Once the dough is shaped and is rising for the second time, preheat the oven to 350°F. When the dough is risen, remove the plastic wrap, and brush the top with beaten egg. Place the candied cherries (cut in half) in the spaces between the slits in the dough, and decorate with nuts as desired.
9. Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, covering the loaf loosely with foil after the first 15 minutes, as it will brown quickly. Remove the bread from the oven when the inner parts of the slits look cooked and the interior measures 190°F when measured with an instant-read thermometer. Cool the bread on a rack.