Monday, February 13, 2012

Three Kings’ Cake Recipe

by Kelley Lindberg

Mardi Gras is rapidly approaching – it will be Tuesday, February 21 this year. Have you already designed your costume and mask, stocked up on beads, and perused the parade schedule? No? Then, like me, you probably don’t live in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, or Spain. Pity. It sounds fun.

Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is the day before Ash Wednesday (which is the day before Lent begins). But the whole Mardi Gras season, also called Carnival season, actually begins on the Epiphany (January 6) and leads up to Mardi Gras. (The Epiphany, sometimes called Three Kings’ Day, is the day the Magi appeared after Jesus’ birth.) Since Lent is a season of ritual fasting and religious obligations (and traditionally, Catholics elect to “give up” something they like during Lent as a sacrifice symbolizing their faith), the Mardi Gras season leading up to Lent is a time for celebrations, rich foods, and fun – kind of a “last hurrah” before things get serious. (Okay, this is a gross simplification of the whole thing, but it gives the gist, right?)

Mardi Gras has about a million traditions, from who gets to ride on parade floats, to what you have to do to get a necklace of plastic beads. One less-risqué tradition is the Three Kings’ Cake – a sweetened bread formed into a circle and decorated with candied fruit and sugar to make it look like a crown.

In New Orleans, it’s traditional to have a Three Kings’ Cake anytime during the Mardi Gras season, but especially on Fat Tuesday itself. In other areas, such as in Spain, it’s traditional to serve the Three Kings’ Cake on the Epiphany (January 6).

This year, my son’s Spanish teacher, who is from Spain, wanted to serve the class Three Kings’ Cake (Rosca de Reyes) on January 6, as she taught them about this huge cultural celebration in Spain. There is a parade in Madrid that rivals our Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, but instead of Santa, the Madrid version brings the three Wise Men on floats. Children get presents on January 6 in many cultures, too.

I did some research to find out how to make a safe Three Kings’ Cake for my son’s teacher, and discovered that the Rosca de Reyes that is served in Spain on the Epiphany is basically the same things as the Three King’s Cake served in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. There are as many recipes as there are chefs, naturally, but I practiced making several different cakes for a couple of weeks until I developed a recipe that was simple and free from egg, milk, and nuts.

Another fun tradition with the Three Kings’ Cake is that the baker always tucks a small plastic baby Jesus, or a coin, into the baked cake. Depending on the region’s traditions, whoever finds the coin or doll will either: 1) have good luck, or 2) have to bring the cake to the next celebration.

The simplest recipe I finally created uses frozen bread dough. Smith’s (Kroger) has a white bread dough that is free from milk, eggs, and nuts, so that is what I used. Rhodes dough had a milk warning, so I didn’t use that one. If you need a gluten-free recipe, just substitute your favorite gluten-free bread dough. All Three Kings’ Cake recipes call for candied fruit – the best is home-made candied fruit (like orange rinds), but I don’t have the patience to make my own, so I used the candied cherries you find at Christmas-time, that people use to make fruit cake. But not everyone likes that kind of candied fruit. So a better option might be to use maraschino cherries – everyone loves those! And they’re easier to find any time of year.

Start a new tradition in your family this year, and serve a Three Kings’ Cake for Mardi Gras. It is surprisingly easy, the kids can have fun decorating the “crown,” and you’ll find a new way to connect with cultures near and far who celebrate this fun holiday.

(I ended up making cakes for all 5 of the teacher’s Spanish classes. Because each cake had to serve about 25 kids, I used two loaves to form each cake, so the photos show larger cakes than a single loaf will make.)

Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings’ Cake)
  • 1 loaf frozen bread dough (or make your own dough for regular white bread)
  • 1/4 c. candied fruit, raisins, dried cranberries, or maraschino cherries cut in half (or a mix of your favorites)
  • 2 T corn syrup (like Karo syrup)
  • 1 – 2 tsp hot water
  • 1/4 c. granulated sugar
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Small plastic baby or coin
  1. Heat your oven to 175 degrees, then turn it off. Place the frozen bread dough in a greased loaf pan, and cover it with a sheet of plastic wrap sprayed with non-stick spray. Put the pan in the oven and let it rise for several hours, until it has risen about an inch higher than the top of the bread pan.
  2. Grease a large cookie sheet, or put a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. (Parchment paper is the best!)
  3. Dump out the dough onto wax paper or a pastry stone, and stretch out the loaf until it is 12 – 15 inches long. You don’t want to handle it too much, but you need a long-ish rope. Then put the bread on your prepared cookie sheet and form it into a circle. Pinch the ends together well so that it doesn’t come apart while baking.
  4. To make a glaze, put the corn syrup in a small bowl or cup, then add a small amount (1 tsp or so) of hot water and stir it. It just needs to be thinned a little so that it will be easier to brush onto the top of the cake. Then use a pastry brush to brush the glaze over the dough.
  5. Place the candied fruit, raisins, or cherries along the top of the crown. Press them into the dough a little so that they stick to it, but are still showing. This is where the kids can get creative – the candied fruit are the jewels in the crown!
  6. Finally, you can use either white sugar or colored sugar to finish decorating the crown. Mardi Gras cakes usually have green, purple, and yellow sugar. The Spanish version served on the Epiphany uses white sugar. If you’d like colored sugar, use a small glass jar to shake the sugar with food coloring, or purchase colored sugar at the store. When you put the sugar on the cake, don’t be shy – it isn’t really sprinkled on, it’s dumped on, usually in bands around the cake! Google some images of Rosca de Reyes or Kings Cake and you’ll find hundreds.
  7. As soon as you’ve finished decorating the cake, bake it for 25 - 30 minutes at 375 degrees. It should be just turning golden, like bread, but don’t let the bottom burn.
  8. After the cake cools, carefully lift up one edge of the cake and slip the plastic baby or coin (I like to wrap the coin in aluminum foil) under the edge so that it is hidden. Warn your guests/family about the prize in the cake so that you don’t have to make any unplanned trips to the dentist.
Happy Mardi Gras!

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