The King’s Cake is a sweet treat associated primarily with Roman Catholic Christianity. This diverse cake has many variations depending on the location of the celebration. King’s Cake is served in France, Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and in parts of North America (Badcock, 2015). The cake’s origin was in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a festival which celebrates the Greek god Saturn, although the dish is no longer being celebrated for these purposes (Badcock, 2015, Salusbury, 2009). According to the French traditions, “La Galette des Rois” which translated means “The Kings’ Cake” (Malvezin, 2016). Similarly, Spanish traditions literally call this dish “Rosca de Reyes” or “Thread of Kings” which is meant to represent a King’s wreath (Babezat, 2019). In both traditions, the King’s Cake is eaten on January 6th to celebrate the Epiphany, a part of the Christmas story which focuses the day that the three Magi (kings) visited the baby Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Malvezin, 2016, Babezat, 2019). The King’s Cake is distinguished by its donut-like shape, colorful fruits on top, and a figure hidden inside of the cake for the consumer to discover. The cake holds different meanings to different localities. In several traditions, the cake symbolizes King Herod’s crown where the colorful fruits represent jewels of the crown (or gems on the Wise Men’s clothing) and the baby figurine hidden inside symbolizes how baby Jesus was hiding from King Herod who wanted to kill the baby who threatened his power (Babezat, 2019). Other variations of this dish include differences in the hidden object inside of the cake, the flavors and fruits used to make the cake, what the cake is consumed with, and the prizes for finding the hidden object. This cake can be homemade or bought in stores during the holiday season. The King’s Cake is significant because it is the most widespread dessert used in the celebration of the Epiphany in these traditions. The cake also symbolizes the sacred event even though it has historical roots predating the modern Roman Catholic influence. In every way that the dish is created in the differing traditions, it is still popularly centered around the same historical holiday and the same story. The minute cultural differences between the production of the cake are evidence of its longevity and religious significance. Because of how many variations are typical for this dish, I am not particularly concerned with messing it up. The basic recipe must be flexible enough to accept different flavors, so I think that making the flavors correctly will be okay. I am worried that because this dish has so many different recipes, it will be difficult to find one that tastes amazing. If my cake resembles the pictures that I have seen and it tastes good, I will be happy with the end result. Also, I have more familiarity with baking than cooking, so I feel that this cake is more in line with my capabilities than other religious dishes that I could have chosen. I care about this traditional cake because it is a dish that my boyfriend has described to me that he eats with his family every year in Spain. Also, I think it is really cool that the cake’s artistic composition is symbolic of the religious ties that it holds. It shows an example of how cultures use food to describe a narrative.
The Rosca de Reyes or “crown of kings” is traditionally eaten on January 6th to celebrate the Epiphany. This date is significant as it connects with three celebrations. Originally, the first of these is the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was a party celebrating the winter solstice (Abitbol, 2018). Saturnalia consisted of giving presents, eating a big meal, decorating trees, and themes of generosity and goodwill were reinforced. Saturnalia was intended to be a day of opposites, where social rules were insignificant as slaves received the day off and dressed up in their masters clothes. When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman Empire began a period of mixing the pagan festival with religious celebration. Slowly, the pagan festival lost its connection to honoring the god Saturn. The first time that Christmas is recorded to have been celebrated on December 25th was in 354 AD, before that, Saturnalia was the predominating winter celebration. Following the first celebrations of Christmas, the Orthodox Church within the Byzantine Roman Empire declared the celebration of the Epiphany to be on January 6th. The connection of Saturnalia to Christmas and the Epiphany has been studied intensely by scholars who have concluded that the overlaps in the celebrations are certainly entertaining to consider, however there is not enough evidence to causally link their timing together (Salusbury, 2009). In modern times, the celebration of the Epiphany (modernly called “Three Kings Day”) was to be celebrated on the twelfth night of Christmas which explains why the Rosca de Reyes is now traditionally eaten on January 6th (Spencer, 2016). The timing of the Epiphany is closely related to the celebrations of Christmas and Saturnalia although it is heavily debated as to how these newer celebrations were born out of the old traditions associated with Saturnalia.
The modern Epiphany is a celebration of the 3 Magi’s (Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar) visit and bring gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The Spanish tradition celebrates this story differently than how Christmas is celebrated. In Spain, children write letters about what they want for presents to the three kings rather than Santa. The Dia de los Reyes Magos or “Three King’s Day” is celebrated on January 6th. On January 5th, children leave milk, wine, and cookies or candies out for both the three Kings and their respective animals. The Rosca de Reyes is consumed for breakfast or lunch and the figure hidden inside of it means different things depending on the family. In some cases, finding the figure, a baby or a crown, makes one the King for the day and discovering the fava bean means that the person will have to buy the cake the following year (Medina, 2015). Other traditions do not include a figure or bean within it at all. It seems that the presence or meaning of the hidden figurines within the cake depend on the location of the celebration as well as the individual family tradition associated with finding or not finding the figurine. The Dia de los Reyes Magos is the name of the celebration of the Epiphany in Spain and in several other countries as well.
The recipe for the Rosca de Reyes differs depending on where the cake is made. In Spain, the main ingredients of the bread are flour, sugar, warm milk, butter, yeast, egg yolks, orange and lemon zests, salt, and sometimes rum. The Spanish toppings are usually candied fruits and nuts held onto the cake by an icing (Spencer, 2016, Houston 2016). The Mexican recipe is often very similar to the Spanish recipe. In France, the cake is known as a Galette des Rois and the main ingredients include puff pastry, egg, butter, icing, ground almonds, sugar, and rum (Blanc, n.d., Greenspan, 2017). These two recipes are the basic constructions from which the King Cake is derived, however, the cake is also known by several other names. In Portugal, the cake is called “Bolo Rei”, in Catalonia it is called “tortell des Reis”, and in Southeast France a variation of the cake is known as “Pogne de Romans” (Abitbol, 2018). Even though these cakes go by different names, they are all used to celebrate the Epiphany and include a hidden bean or figurine within.
These aspects of the Rosca de Reyes apply to show several main religious concepts. Firstly, religious freedom is a concern to many. In many places, the freedom to practice one’s own religious beliefs is very often literally attacked. Yet, the widespread longevity of this dish has defeated religious agnosticism as the tradition lives on. In the history of the Epiphany, both the celebrations of Christmas and the ancient celebration of Saturnalia likely competed with this celebration for a lasting tradition. It was through the religious freedom of individuals who chose to continue this celebration that it is still an important cultural celebration in various places. Another aspect of religious freedom that this dish exhibits is the freedom to change symbolic religious items and rituals. The dish is celebrated in a variety of cultures across the glob, with both traditional recipes and recipes with creative alterations. Further, other components of religion relate to the Rosca de Reyes and its history. The cake can be associated with well-being and social justice in that it serves to bring people together to celebrate their common culture and identity. This aspect connects with religious freedom in that through reinforcing well-being in the celebration, the celebration continues to live on and represent the religion collectively. Unfortunately, I cannot conceive how the dish could have specific connections to environmental justice. I believe that the most significant piece of this dish is the traditional weight that it carries. It symbolizes deeply held religious beliefs and the dish is a key part of the celebration of the Epiphany in several places. With this in mind, I think that the dish could be made successfully as long as it is respectful to its religious ties.
The process of making the Rosca de Reyes was fairly straightforward. To me, it is basically a bread, but in European countries it is considered a cake. The process of making the dish begins with using yeast to make a “starter” as my mom called it. My mom has been the family cook for years and somehow she picks up on things I have never heard of like the bread starter. The yeast is mixed with warm milk in order to let the yeast ferment. I really liked this part of the process because as the yeast activated, the smell of homemade bread filled the kitchen. As a kid, my grandma and I would often bake all sorts of desserts and dishes, so the smell reminded me of my time with her in the kitchen. It seems to me that yeast is the key quality to making bread bread. While the yeast was activating, I prepared the other part of the bread. This included bread flour, salt, sugar, eggs, and butter as well as mixing in little scoops of the starter until it was gone. These ingredients had to be measured using a little kitchen scale in ounces, because the Spanish recipe did not include American measurements. One other cool part of this process was when I zested an orange and lemon peel into the flour mixture. Zesting is such an oddly satisfying thing to do. As you zest the peel releases a vibrant fragrance into the air. Once all of these ingredients were mixed together, we sprayed a bowl with cooking oil and put Saran wrap on top of it to let it rise. Once the dough doubled in size we kneaded the dough and let it rise one more time. After the bread was finished rising, we formed the dough into the oval shape and added dried sugared fruits to the top of the dough. Then we baked the dough. I was surprised by how quickly the dough baked. It took the bread less than 20 minutes to bake. As the bread was baking, I noticed how amazing my hands smelled from kneading and forming the bread, I did not want to wash them because of the irreplicable scent. Once the bread was done, we let it cool and then cut it in half. Then we mixed up homemade whipped cream and added it to the middle of the two halves. It was interesting that the recipe did not specify the type of cream used to fill the halves, instead it said add your favorite cream in the middle.
Then, finally, the dish was finished. I was so excited to try it. I cut the cake into pieces and took a slice for myself. I expected the cake to taste of a strong sweet orange flavor although when I tasted the cake, the orange flavor was not as strong as what I prepared myself for. Even so, the cake was good with its soft flavoring. I liked having the dried fruit garnish on top of the cake because it added slightly different collaborating flavors and a new texture than what the rest of the cake had. The fresh cream in the middle of the cake melted in my mouth and very quickly my piece of cake was gone and my stomach was aching for more. Before making this dish, I thought that it would taste very sugary like the American cakes that I am used to, however instead this cake tasted more like what I would define as a sweet bread. I also noticed that in many dessert cakes that I have made in the past, either vanilla or cocoa is used to flavor the mixture, although this dish did not need either of these ingredients but utilizes the flavor of orange instead. Overall, my experience baking the Rosca de Reyes with my mom was a positive and fun experience, and I would make the cake again for a perfect breakfast food.
To begin, the issue religious freedom might cause a clash when it comes to which recipe is right. Because King’s Cake has roots in several nations which have also spread those roots to other areas, there are many ways to make this religious dish. Yet, because these places are celebrating the same religious tradition with different versions of the dish, they may argue amongst each other that one way or another is better. This ties into the issue of religious freedom in representing the religious celebration. In arguing with one another, these cultures are showing their fear of their tradition changing, when, in reality, this would be what they were each fighting for separately. Another concern that relates to religious freedom would be concerning the use of the dish in the cultural setting. Globally, there are issues of the secularization of holidays and traditions as people who are not a part of the religious tradition still celebrate using the customs attributed to the holiday. This is the fear of secularization of religious traditions within the celebration of holidays. In the case of the King’s Cake, people may fear that their religious belief attributed with Christianity are being undermined by people who eat the cake without reverence for the religious significance of the dish. When I made the cake, this was something I thought about and it made me slightly uncomfortable to make the dish because I was concerned that people from this religion where the cultural tradition is celebrated would not appreciate the separation of the dish from its religious celebratory roots. In light of religious freedom, there are several ways that this dish could potentially go wrong and cause strife.
Next, the issue of well-being is a particular concern for this dish. The most present matter is that the cake traditionally has a hidden figurine inside of it, usually a plastic baby figurine, a dried fava bean, or another ceramic piece. Obviously, this is a choking hazard for children but for adults also. Part of the fun with this dish is finding this hidden figure, although if you do not know where it is and it cannot be chewed, it presents a health risk. This would also present a problem to a bakery, who might be concerned with legal issues attached to putting a figurine inside of the cake. As a result, they might refrain from baking the dish, or they might find an alternate solution. A possible solution for this to make it more safe would be to include an item that someone would not choke on, but it could still be hidden within the cake, like a gumdrop or hard candy. Other issues of well being might include that it is not gluten or dairy free, so individuals with dietary restrictions may be unable to consume this. These individuals would instead have to find an alternate recipe which may be difficult or impossible, and this might make them feel left out of the celebration if they come from this tradition.
Finally the areas of social justice and environmental justice might also be concerned with the plastic figurine. As a concrete example, there was a Facebook problem centered around this plastic figurine of the little baby Jesus. Apparently Facebook had an image of a commercial box of these little plastic babies within someone’s post and deemed it as too profane for the public Facebook feed therefore it was censored on this popular social media platform (Pomranz, 2019). This is a real issue that occurred because Facebook found that the image was at risk of harm to the public. Facebook found the baby figure to be socially unjust and so it monitored it on its website. One could assume that individuals might also have this concern. Maybe having a naked baby Jesus in a cake to randomly discover is just not something that people want to share around the dinner table for their Epiphany dessert. Finally, environmental concerns would be about the production of the plastic figurine baby, which would be very likely to end up in a landfill as I assume no one collects these to keep as a sacred momento of the celebration. Since this item is not diagnostically valuable to society, it is probably an item that environmentalists would cringe at the sight of. These characteristics present several ethical concerns that individuals may have about the Rosca de Reyes.
Personally, I feel that most of these issues are not big enough to acquire my concern. I think that there are other ways to combat issues that these issues stem from rather than being upset about a cake, you just can't blame a cake for society's problems. One thing I would advocate for however, is the concern of choking on the plastic figure within the cake. I believe that health is a good concern to have and it is easy to address in relation to the King's Cake.
I picked this dish because it matched my Christian religious roots and it was a dish that I knew of from hearing about it being eaten by my Spanish boyfriend’s family during the Christmas season. I have never been to another country or felt that I had much of a cultural experience with the world, especially through food, although I have had many religious experiences in my time. I also chose this dish because it sounded like something I might actually have had a chance at doing well and liking in the end. As far as what I learned about people’s relationship to food, I thought it was cool how in some cultures, finding the hidden fava bean within the King’s Cake meant one thing and in another tradition it meant something else. It seems to me that these cultures sort of edit the core of the dish to whatever fits their needs and wishes best. From learning about this dish and my classmate’s dishes I found that things I normally eat may have religious significance when I do not even know it and that foods that I never considered to be religious truly are religious.
I find it interesting that many different religious traditions and people still use specific foods for specific events but these vary within religions as well as cultures shift and change over time. When it comes to foods that I eat, I may now think of them in different ways then before as my understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of food and religious traditions has expanded over the course of this semester. Someday when I have a family of my own with religious traditions I want to pass down, maybe I will consider the role that food has in creating a strong moral community.
The photo on the left is of a Mardi Gras style King's Cake, as you can see the little plastic babies and traditional celebration beads are presented in gold, purple, and green.
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