“January 6th is a big deal in my family,” says chef Roberto Santibañez of Fonda (40 Avenue B, 212-677-4096; 189 Ninth Avenue, 917-525-5252; 434 Seventh Avenue, 718-369-3144).
“Every year in my house when I was a child, we didn’t get our presents on Christmas, we got them on January 6, the day when we celebrate the Three Kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. It’s also my grandmother’s birthday, so for us it was an even more special day, and every year, we ate rosca de reyes.”
The rosca de reyes is a highly decorated sweet dough, somewhere between a dense-textured brioche and a danish pastry, shaped in a ring like a king’s crown. Hidden inside is a tiny replica of the baby Jesus waiting for a lucky person to discover (or an unlucky one to crack a filling on).
“It’s not an easy cake,” says Santibañez. “You know how like in France, a galette des rois — you’d always buy that at a patisserie. Well, in Mexico nobody makes this cake at home. You go to a bakery and carry this huge, heavy box back, with enough cake for all your family and friends. And then you eat it for like a week until it’s gone, dipping it in hot chocolate. The best! Then that’s it until next year.
“I’m lucky,” Santibañez goes on. “One of my friends actually is a baker, so he makes my king cake.”
He means Miguel Lopez, from one of New York’s oldest Mexican bakeries, Don Paco Lopez (4703 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-492-7443). “We’re neighbors and I know the whole family, the grandmother, the father, the cousins,” Santibañez explains. “They come to my restaurant to eat my dinner, and I go to their bakery to eat their cake.”
It’s 6.30 p.m., but Don Paco Lopez is bustling with life. Trays of bread are stacked behind glass doors, some dusted with flour, others pearled with sugar. Steam condenses on the windows, decorated with colorful decals of the Three Kings following their star. And then there’s the rosca de reyes, a gorgeous, extravagant riot of color, as traditional as can be.
“I’ve been making these cakes in New York for 25 years,” says Lopez. “And I come from generations of bakers. My grandfather opened his bakery in Mexico in 1944.”
The rosca de reyes, as Lopez is quick to point out, has a tradition far longer than that: “It’s based on a fifteenth-century cake that the French made, the Spanish adapted, then Franciscans modified and brought to Mexico. But since then, always the same. It’s actually a sweet bread, not a cake, flavored with a hint of citrus. And we decorate it with dried fruit — figs, cherries, candied orange peel, and acitrón de biznaga, which is a wild cactus that we crystallize with sugar. And yes, we put a figure of a baby hidden in each one.”
“Every year when I was a child, we’d try not to get the baby Jesus,” says Santibañez. “Because that person has to host a party for everyone in February to celebrate Candlemas. So if you thought you could feel Jesus when you were slicing, you’d jiggle the knife to avoid getting him.”
“Rosca de reyes is very traditional,” says Lopez. “And I think that’s why it’s so popular. This year, we’ve already made about 5,000! It’s a lot, but we enjoy it. It’s what we love.”
“I’m excited to have it at my restaurant,” says Santibañez. “Some people eat rosca de reyes all through December, but it’s more special when you can’t have something all the time. As my grandmother would say, ‘No! You have to be patient!’ So we have it for Kings’ Day, and then by the tenth, it’s gone for another year.”