For many children, the highlight of the Christmas season is Dec. 25, but in Brooklyn’s Latino community, the real fun often starts on Jan. 6 — Three Kings Day.
And on this celebration of the birth of Jesus, the highlight is a good Three Kings Day cake, also known as Rosca de Reyes, a ring-shaped bread topped with sweet dried fruit and pocked with hidden toys throughout.
Though recipes vary, all Roscas de Reyes are made from yeast, flour, eggs, butter, sugar, and an array of candied fruits (which can include figs, orange peel, and even candied and colored cactus). Depending on the size of the cake, anywhere from three toys to 15 can be placed inside, though for a little more money most bakers are happy to add extras.
“My favorite part is when you put the toys in,” said Niceforo Sosa of La Villata Bakery in Williamsburg. “You try and make people guess: will the toy be in this piece or that piece?”
Sosa has been making the scrumptious sweet breads since the 1980s and now operates out of a tiny bakery on the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue. Because the cakes are such a special tradition, the bakery only makes a few each year, selling them right before the actual holiday. This means a precarious guessing game — foreseeing just how many cakes he’ll need before cake production shoots into high gear about a week before the holiday.
Still the cakes themselves are worth it. “We may only sell a few,” Sosa said, “but they’re delicious.”
Miguel Lopez, on the other hand, makes several thousand Roscas de Reyes each year at Don Paco Lopez Panaderia in Sunset Park, one of the oldest Mexican bakeries in Brooklyn.
The bakery tops its bread with traditional figs and candied orange peel, as well as with candied cactus fruit died colorful reds and greens for the holiday. The secret ingredient, however, is orange flavoring. Though you can’t taste the orange, you can taste its affect on the dough, signaling that what you are eating is in fact an authentic Rosca de Reyes.
“A lot of places sell Rosca de Reyes,” said Lopez. “But they use a traditional sweet bread dough, not the dough for Rosca de Reyes. We do our best to make the right bread and keep that tradition alive.”
Raul Gonzales, of Grand Morelos bakery on Grand street in Williamsburg, is also helping to keep the tradition alive. He’s been making Roscas for the past 14 years, and says that each year the bakery keeps fielding more and more orders for the kingly cake.
“We started out making about 20 to 30, then that became 80, and now we’re making over 100,” said Gonzales, who helps to make all the cakes by hand. “Believe me, it’s a lot.”
The bakery uses traditional dried fruits, as well as the less traditional peaches. Gonzales also uses lemon juice, and lets the dough sit and rise for a full 24 hours before baking, which helps to develop the flavor.
“You can’t know how good a cake is until you buy it and eat it,” Gonzales says. “It’s not how they look, it’s how they taste.”
La Vitalia [171 Grand St. at Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 486-8761]: Grand Morelos [727 Grand St. at Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 218-9441]; La Princesa [94 Graham Ave. between Seigel and Moore streets in East Williamsburg, (718) 388-3399]; Don Paco Lopez Panaderia [4703 Fourth Ave. at 47th Street in Sunset Park, (718) 492-7443]; Las Conchitas Bakery [4811 Fifth Ave. between 47th and 48th streets in Sunset Park, (718) 437-5513]; La Gran Via Bakery [4516 Fifth Ave. between 45th and 46th streets in Sunset Park, (718) 853-8021].