The Rosca de Reyes is a crown of harina decorated with diamonds of sugary powder and jewels made of multicolored candied fruit peels and cherries. Inside one of the slices of this circular loaf of bread is a bite-size toy baby meant to represent Jesus. The person who gets the slice with the inedible toy will owe his family or friends a tamales party.
This old-school tradition is the center of El Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), which is one of tons of other culinary and cultural traditions that have migrated north since the great Mexican migrations of the 1990s. It is in many ways an extension of Christmas in many homes across Los Angeles.
Even if you aren’t religious, anyone is willing to believe that the baby Jesus would have wanted more tamales and more parties for you in the future. The “rosca,” as it is commonly called, is part of a whole tradition that for many more of us becomes a good excuse to get together and have a dense sweet bread, with steaming champurrado, and maybe a small pour of mezcal.
In Mexico’s traditionalist culture, “the holidays” extend from December 12 (the Virgen de Guadalupe feast day) all the way to February 2, Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas). And in between you get Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Christmas Day, and Three Kings Day (January 6), which is when kids usually get toys or other gifts — a key distinction to the American tradition of presents for kids on Christmas Day.
The rosca party belongs to Three Kings Day.
The origins of the holiday is a wild biblical story that involves the murdering of infants. But the short version is that three magi visit baby Jesus because the stars told them the babe was the new king on the block. The hidden figurine represents when lil’ baby J hid from an old grumpy king who was trying to kill all the babies. But he lived! Until he didn’t … and then he did again! And now we get king bread and tamales!
Traditionally, on January 6th the rosca is cut and dispersed among family, friends, or co-workers. Each person who is participating is given a piece. Whoever gets the plastic toy in their piece is tasked with throwing La Fiesta de La Candelaria. These days the toy is plastic, and some panaderias now put multiple baby Jesuses in their breads for the hell of it.
The taste of the rosca depends of the baker, of course. Especially here in L.A., the rosca has only recently become more common and is evolving. (In Downey, you can get rosca donuts.)
But in general, the bread part of mass-produced rosca tastes like something in between a pan dulce and a bolio. Others are denser, more like a cuerno or elote pan dulce with little bits of cinnamon mixed in. Some roscas can be bagel-like, with hints of sweetness and citrus. The candied fruit on top of the rosca is like a fancy Fruit Roll-up, and the ends are crunchy from baking. The rosca goes perfectly with some hot chocolate or atole, or even mezcal. (Homemade chocolate paired with mezcal is a common practice in Oaxaca.)
Three Kings Day is celebrated in Catholic nations like Spain, France, and many Spanish-speaking countries. In Mexico City, the holiday gets pretty crazy with big stunts like the mile-long rosca. In Los Angeles, the rosca tradition is becoming popular. The bread is big enough to share with a large group, and if well covered, it can keep for days, so you can sustain the spirit of Three Kings Day with rosca and coffee in the morning.
Rosca in L.A. is readily available at Latin American grocers or your local panaderia. They are usually only sold during the week leading up to the celebration, or the first week of the year. So get out there and get one of these bad boys, and hope to sweet baby Jesus you don’t have to buy the tamales (but if you do, here’s a list).
Where to Get Rosca in L.A.
The Northgate Gonzalez supermarket chain that started in Anaheim has a panaderia in every store. Each year, Northgate stores bake and sell roscas for Día de Reyes. It is one of the easiest ways to get the sweet bread, especially considering that many family panaderias require advance orders.
Other chains like Super A Foods, El Super, and Vallarta Supermarkets offer roscas available for pick-up the first week of January. The Super A in Paramount also sells rosca by the slice this time of year.
The renowned Cuban bakery chain Porto’s sells a rosca de reyes, available for pick-up from January 2 to January 6, available with advance reservations. In 2018 they made Los Angeles history by making a 24-foot long and 125-pound rosca. As impressive a feat as that is, that still isn’t as long as their lines.
The panaderia chain La Monarca has the bread readily available. They have been selling pan dulce for more than a decade and make their rosca from scratch every year. They also sell slices of the bread if your biggest fear is throwing a party. But be wary, because every slice of rosca has a baby in it. Might be a reason to throw a party for yourself!
At La Mascota, the popular Boyle Heights bakery, you can pre-order or walk-in to pick up the pastry. You can also get tamales here, in case you are selected as tribute to throw the party next month.
Another popular bakery chain, Pacific French Bakery – known for stellar baked goods but also for their long lines – has got you covered. It comes in a box that has the magi printed and it has the trademark candied stripes but also powdered sugar. The best practice is to order ahead of time, but they will start selling roscas today, January 4.
Donas, the little Downey donut shop known for colorful and sparkly creations, seasonally offers a rosca donut. It is a mini-version of the rosca with similar candied fruits strips, maraschino cherries, and pan dulce crumbles. The rosca donuts are only sold by the dozen through pre-orders, so make sure to plan ahead.
Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.
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