Roscón de Reyes – lessons from a Spanish pastry

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Who knew a Spanish pastry had something to teach me?

Yesterday, D. and I introduced E. to her first Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day, or Epiphany).

For those of you unfamiliar with the holiday (and, the pastry): In the Christian faith, Epiphany commemorates the Magi’s visit and presentation of gifts to the baby Jesus, as well as celebrates his incarnation and manifestation to the non-Jews (Gentiles). “In Spain, roscones bought in pastry shops have a small figure hidden inside, either of a baby Jesus or little toys for children, as well as the more traditional dry fava bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned “king” or “queen” of the celebration, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay for the next year’s roscón or Epiphany party.” (Wikipedia)

As I previously wrote in this post, having a child changes your outlook on and way of life, including the traditions you choose to follow. Not wanting E. to  miss out on her Spanish heritage despite living thousands of miles away, D. and I decided to celebrate the arrival of the three Magi with regalos (gifts) and a roscón de reyes (literally, King’s ring).

Well, ten days of trial and error, two recipes (one in English, one in Spanish), three roscones, one video tutorial, a broken package of azahar (orange blossom water), and over 24 hours of kneading and waiting, kneading and waiting, I learned a few lessons about culture, people, traditions, and my intersection – sometimes collision – with all three.

(I love using food as analogy for life. That, and well, I just love food.)

1. There is pleasure in the waiting –

According to some historical accounts, the Magi traveled twelve days to find the announced king of the Jews (hence, the traditional twelve days of Christmas); others claim two years. Either way, their journey required waiting.

I commend the patience of these kings because the notion of delighting in the wait is a concept that goes against my American “I-have-to-check-this-off-my-to-do-list-now” grain. If I’d had it my way, I would’ve made just one roscón, the day of Reyes. But, D., knowing better than me how tricky and time-consuming a roscón is to make, encouraged me to spend time practicing.

I’m so glad I took his advice, not because it enabled me to perfect this pastry, but because I found that I enjoyed, no delighted in, my time spent in the kitchen.

This notion of viewing cooking (and baking) as an act of love is very Spanish. About half-way through the above video tutorial, chef David de Jorge (on the right), while watching fellow baker Iván knead the dough, comments, “Yeah, this bread definitely requires a lot of patience!” To which Iván replies, “No, don’t think of it that way. It’s time spent around the kitchen counter with friends and family, chatting, eating, drinking, having a good time.”

Iván is right. Kneading the bread and proofing the dough aren’t “hours spent slaving in the kitchen,” but rather hours spent chatting with friends, or in my case cantando a E. as she babbled along, tossing crackers and raisins all over the floor. It was a sweet day of madre e hija bonding.

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2. Intentional and simple – 

It’s easy to get swept up in the craziness of the holiday season: you feel the pressure to shop, to decorate, to bake, to entertain.

Thankfully, the simplicity of the ingredients found in the roscón reminded me that some of the best holidays, and best moments in life, are those with the least amount of frills.

For as time-consuming as a roscón is to make, its list of ingredients is quite basic: flour, yeast, milk, eggs, butter, and orange. Oh, and rum! It requires  no fancy pots or pans, no exotic knives or strange blenders. But it does require intentionality. You must give yourself an entire day to make it. You must be willing to wait, to watch, to knead, and to repeat.

So, partly inspired by the roscón and partly by the simple Christmas we had just spent with extended family, D. and I decided to go against the cultural tide of consumerism that sweeps the United States during this sacred time. We bought E. one gift, a set of wooden animal magnets to accompany her favorite libros de animales by Eric Carle. To help her see the connection between the magnets and her books, as well as to help her appreciate what she already owns, I wrapped and re-gifted two of her own books for her to open with the magnets.

Each Magi brought one gift to the baby Jesus, a gift of great worth and great significance. I admire their intentionality, even the simplicity hidden under their robes and jewels. Although I am not immune to the materialism that surrounds us, I do hope that as she grows, E. will set aside el día de Reyes as a day for being thoughtful and simple.

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3. Inviting others to join you – 

Among other things, my eleven years of marriage to a Spaniard have taught me that food always tastes better when shared with others around a table. This year’s roscón has taught me to open that table wider and longer and to invite those on the outside to come in and join our family.

You see, D. and I had initially planned to celebrate Reyes en familia, just the two of us with little E. Keep it simple, keep it intimate (see point #2 above). This will be ours, I thought.

Excited at the thought of creating a new family tradition, I began to plan out the day: breakfast of freshly-baked roscón, followed by a few gifts for E., and a phone call to family in España.

But our plans quickly – and fortunately – changed and our table grew just a little bit bigger. A few days before Reyes, I learned that my dear friend, feeling homesick for family in Madrid, had no plans for the sixth. New plans were made: our breakfast roscón y chocolate caliente would become after dinner dessert. And, so I stretched the dough even more and set out two extra plates.

Yet, hours before our friends arrived for dinner and just minutes before I slipped the roscón in the oven, I learned that my next-door neighbor and her baby had been snowed in at home all day. So, I invited her to tea and stretched the dough just a bit more.

“But, you don’t have to cut into the roscón just for me,” she said. But, I did. Hoy era especial (Today was different.) What is food if we can’t share it with others?

El Día de Reyes was never a holiday my parents, sisters, and I celebrated.But, I have a new family now, one of two cultures and two languages, two countries, and two histories. My choice to make a roscón and give gifts was, to make another analogy, this time to the centuries-old story of the Magi, an incarnation of my love for my husband and a manifestation of our combined amor to our little E.

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How have you taken on the culture of another? What new traditions have you and your family intentionally chosen to follow (or not)? In what ways are you opening your table to those on the outside?

3 thoughts on “Roscón de Reyes – lessons from a Spanish pastry

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