In some parts of Christianity, particularly the East, Epiphany is an even larger celebration than Christmas. In fact, it seems to have once been an alternative date to Christmas, that was kept because why not resolve conflicts with both/and solutions instead of either/or! Today, the festival centers on the identity of the Christ-child, where Christmas centers on his brith. Epiphany means a showing or revealing of a divine identity. This theme is carried through the Season of Epiphany, which are the days that follow. In many places, Jesus’ first miracle (another epiphany of his divine identity) is commemorated with another party—the turning of water into wine.
In the West, the feast has focused on the visit of the Three Kings. This too is an epiphany of the divine identity of Christ. The Three Kings represent the first step in the whole world paying homage to the coming kingdom of God. I suppose we must mention that they were not really kings, but Magi, which are closer to magicians. They were astrologers from the East, maybe from a different religion, but they got the message nevertheless. We don’t know if there were three of them, but there where three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Eventually a set of legends developed the identity of the “kings” and gave them names: Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar.
One Epiphany tradition (or twelfth-night, the evening before) we love is the chalking of the door. It is a blessing for a home in the new year (Warning: 2020 was our first year we tried it!) What you do is mark the first half of the year (20), then a cross or plus sign, then the initials of each king separated by crosses and followed by the last two digits of the year. (For instance, 20 ✝ C ✝ M ✝ B ✝ 21.) Not only do the letters stand for the Magi, but they double as an abbreviation for Christus mansionem benedicat, which means, “May Christ bless this house.”
The most traditional food for Epiphany is the Three King’s Cake, which is commonly referred to as a King’s Cake. Particularly on the Gulf Coast, this sweet is enjoyed throughout the season of Epiphany and over time has become associated with Mardi Gras. It started as just a loaf of regular bread (with a bean cooked into) but over time has evolved into a very sweet treat covered in icing and Mardi Gras covered sprinkles. Each of these cakes includes a fève, a word derived from the fava bean, but now refers to any figurine. Many different styles of fève have been used, but now the most common is a figurine of a baby, representing Christ. The person who finds the baby, bean, or other fève is designated queen or king for the day and is said to be especially blessed. Other traditions say that person is now designated to bring the king cake to the next party or to plan the party for Candlemas on February 2nd. This is not a bad tradition to keep the party going, and a reminder that we are blessed to blessed others.
We’ve chosen the traditional Spanish version of the Three King’s Cake, Rosca de Reyes. Filled with dried fruit and nuts, the Rosca de Reyes is prepared in the shape of a crown and garnished with candied cherries, which represent jewels in the crown. It’s not quite as sweet as our Americanized versions, but feel free to add icing and sprinkles to yours if you’d like.
Pictured Above: Adoración de los Reyes Magos by El Greco, 1568 (Museo Soumaya, Mexico City)
Three Kings Cake (Rosca de Reyes)
Prep Time: 1 hour – 1 hour 30 minutes | Rest/Rising Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Baking Time: 30 minutes | Total time: 4 hours 30 minutes
FOR THE DOUGH
2/3 cup (163 grams) milk
5 1/3 tablespoons (74 grams) butter, cold
1/3 cup (67 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons instant yeast
3 1/4 cups (390 grams) All-Purpose Flour
FOR THE FILLING
2 tablespoons (28 grams) butter, melted
2 tablespoons (25 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup (57 grams) chopped nuts
3/4 cup dried mixed fruits (raisins, cranberries, cherries, etc)
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 egg, beaten
Candied red or green cherries
Glaze: 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of water, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- For the dough: Heat the 2/3 cup milk to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the hot milk over the 5 1/3 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and stir occasionally until the butter melts. Cool the mixture to lukewarm. (Note: If you add the mixture to the yeast in Step 2 before the mixture has cooled enough, it will kill the yeast and your dough won’t rise as intended.)
- In a mixing bowl combine the milk mixture (once it has cooled), 2 large eggs, and 2 teaspoons instant yeast. Add the 3 1/4 cups flour (1 cup at a time), and mix for 5 – 10 minutes or until a soft, smooth dough forms. You can do this by hand or using a stand mixer.
- Place the dough in a lightly greased container, cover it, and let rise until doubled in size, normally about 1 1/2 hours.
- Deflate the dough, cover, and let it rest for an additional 10 minutes.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a 20″ x 12″ rectangle.
- Brush the surface of the dough with 2 tablespoons melted butter, leaving a 1/2″ strip bare along one of the long edges.
- Combine the 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a small bowl. Add the 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 3/4 cup mixed fruits, and 1 tablespoon orange zest, and stir to coat. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the buttered section of the dough.
- Starting with the buttered long edge, loosely roll the dough up, working toward the edge with no butter on it. Pinch the seam together to seal it firmly, then bring the two ends together to form a ring.
- To help the cake keep a round shape, grease the outside of a small bowl and put it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the dough ring, seam side down, around the bowl and tuck one end inside the other, pinching it together to seal it.
- Flatten the ring slightly, and using a pair of kitchen scissors, make cuts in the dough at 1 1/2″ intervals around the outside edge. Hide a doll, candy, bean, or whole nut inside the bread through one of these outside holes. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until nearly doubled, approximately 40 minutes.
- 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 center bowl, 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.
- Bake the bread for 10 minutes then drizzle the glaze (1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of water, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract) over the top. Bake for an additional 5 minutes and then cover the loaf loosely with aluminum foil for the final 15 minutes of baking. (Approximate baking time total= 30 minutes)
- 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.