It's bitterly cold outside Panadería Coatzingo in Jackson Heights, Queens. There are still mounts of frozen snow—now mostly brown and gross—on the sidewalk, but the trek down the icy streets is worth it as soon as I step into the bakery, where the familiar smell of just-baked bread warms me up. Coatzingo is always busy with loyal customers who come in for hot coffee and Mexican pastries like conchas and orejas, but this weekend, it's all about rosca de reyes.
We are all lining up for this large, oval-shaped cake that we've waited a whole year for. Rosca de reyes is one of the many traditions Mexicans inherited from Spain, and it's a direct relative of the Spanish roscón de reyes and the French galette des rois. The rosca is made only for Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day or Feast of the Epiphany) on January 6th, and it marks the end of the holiday season. Most Mexicans wait until January 7th to take down the Christmas tree—and to start our New Year's diets so we can enjoy this treat with our loved ones.
"We've been selling more roscas this year," says Rodrigo, one of the bakers at Coatzingo. "This season has been very busy." Rodrigo and his colleagues make the roscas using the traditional recipe they all learned back in Mexico, which includes eggs, flour, sugar, margarine, walnuts, and a little cinnamon. The bakers shape the roscas into ovals and top them with strips of sugar and candied fruit (traditionally figs, cherries, and lemon and pineapple slices). Topping preferences are the ultimate personality test: are you a dried fruit or a sugar person?
Drink pairing is another important debate. "A lot of people like to have rosca with atole (a thick, corn-based drink), but we like it with hot chocolate," says Rodrigo. Families and friends get together on the evening of January 6th for a slice of rosca and a steaming cup of their favorite beverage, which make for a perfect dinner and, let's face it, a perfect breakfast for the next couple of days.
Many of us suffer a bit of anxiety waiting for our turn to slice the rosca. It's not just because we're scared that everyone else will hog our topping of choice, but because we know we might find one of the plastic Baby Jesus figurines hidden inside the rosca. The amount of figurines baked inside the bread depends on the size of the rosca, and those who find one have to host a tamales and hot chocolate dinner on the feast of the Candelaria on February 2nd for everyone in attendance.
Mexican restaurants in New York have joined the rosca party, too. La Palapa serves a traditional rosca and offers an antojitos and tamales tasting party for six on Día de la Candelaria for guests who find the Baby Jesus. In the East Village's Hecho en Dumbo, the house-made rosca is also filled with figurines, and whoever brings their doll on February 2 gets free tamales. "Sometimes it feels like Christmas has taken over Día de Reyes," says co-owner Danny Mena, "but we are here to keep the tradition alive!"
So while it may be hard to find a fresh rosca again until next year, you can still join in on feasts of the Candelaria on February 2nd. And if you do find one, don't forget these tips: DO dunk the rosca in your hot chocolate or coffee. It tastes great! DON'T pretend you changed your mind about the piece you're slicing. Everyone can tell you found the Baby Jesus and you're trying to avoid hosting a party.