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“You can’t call yourself Mexican if you don’t eat rosca de reyes,” jokes Rafa Rivera, head baker and owner of Forte Bread and Coffee in Mexico City. Distracted, he stops grating orange peel long enough to muse about the king’s cake he is making. Only 29, he already has several businesses under his belt, and is about to open a second Forte location in Colonia Juarez.

Rafa opened the flagship Forte in the Roma Norte neighborhood, serving up delicious pastries and coffee, with beans from Pólvora Coffee Roasters – where his brother Julián is the lead roaster. (In 2017, Julián won first prize in the Mexican Brewers Cup Championship with his Pólvora beans.) We’ve taken advantage of the empty kitchen at the new Forte, which will officially open on Jan 20, asking Rafa to let us sit in on his yearly tradition of making rosca de reyes ahead of Día de Reyes (Epiphany) on Jan 6.

In Mexico, Día de Reyes commemorates the Three Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus, offering an opportunity to extend the Christmas season. Mexican kids go to bed early on January 5, expecting to find gifts next to the Nativity scene the following morning. The traditional way to celebrate this holiday is by eating the rosca de reyes, a ring-shaped cake or sweet bread decorated with fruit paste, which we first wrote about in 2014.

Rafa’s recipe is a traditional one at its core, he insists, though he has made quite a few modifications. He may be young, he says, but he’s old school. “I am a ritualistic person,” he tells us. “For me, the act of putting the rosca de reyes in the middle of the table, cutting it and sharing it with everyone – that’s the most important part. But flavor-wise, I stick to tradition. We don’t try to innovate, to change flavors. But we do try to be creative in our techniques, and we adapt every recipe to work with sourdough starters,” he says.

A self-described “fermentation freak,” Rafa’s obsession with baking really comes from his love of fermenting in any and all its forms. This year, he is using a rosca recipe for brioche dough (for its higher fat content) and the “old dough” method, meaning he incorporates a few portions of pre-fermented dough from an earlier batch into his mix of flour, sugar, eggs, milk, orange zest and commercial yeast. As Rafa goes through these motions, he tells us Forte has adopted this traditional method to reduce waste and add a punch of flavor in their pastry making. “This helps make any kind of bread or pastry tastier,” he explains – if yeast has already had time to grow, its characteristic taste really comes through in the dough.

The small group we have assembled watches Rafa place the new mixture in the refrigerator, where it will cold ferment for 10-15 hours so the yeast can slowly percolate, enhancing the final product. We agree to reconvene the following day, after the bread has finished proofing.

Mixing, proofing, shaping, proofing again, decorating and finally baking – the exhaustive process might be why most people don’t make rosca at home. Even Rafa admits that it’s not his favorite bread to make. “It’s a lot of work. I always enjoy my work, but it’s a lot for a single product. Obviously, we can make bigger batches but, the thing is, when you are shaping the bread you have to do them one by one. It’s a lot of attention to detail and you have to be picky about the toppings,” he says.

“For me, breadmaking and bread in general, is about sharing. So I keep making roscas every year,” he explains. “One of my favorite things about rosca is that it’s one piece of bread that you won’t ever eat by yourself. You have to share it with people.”

The rosca de reyes tradition was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards over 500 years ago. The cake’s roots are thought to have originated with the Romans and their end-of-the-year Saturnalia celebration dedicated to the god of agriculture, Saturn. Sweet bread made with honey and dried fruits was passed out to the commoners of the empire, and whoever found the fava bean that was baked within their piece was named “king for the day.” Co-opted by the Christian church, the tradition resurfaced several centuries later, but this time to accompany the celebration of the three kings – the magi arriving at the birth of Christ. Baked inside the cake, its eaters find little trinkets, with certain items having gone in and out of fashion over the years, whether it be beans or coins or the minuscule plastic babies Americans may know from Mardi Gras.

Rosca de reyes also plays a part in Rafa’s favorite holiday – Candelaria (Candlemas), which falls a few weeks after Epiphany. If on Jan. 6 your bite of king cake is home to a tiny baby Jesus doll, you are responsible for bringing tamales to the Feb. 2nd feast of Candelaria, celebrating Mary’s presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after he was born.

One of my favorite things about Rosca is that it’s always about sharing. For me, breadmaking and bread in general, is about sharing.

Rafa himself has a bowl full of plastic baby Jesus dolls that he bought at the market. After the bread has been proofed for the first time, he divides, weighs and then shapes it, folding it over and over to form a ring – but first, he presses three little plastic dolls into the dough, like Jesus in the manger – or, as some historians have suggested, to symbolize Mary and Joseph hiding the baby Jesus from King Herod.

“To me, the flavor of the rosca is more important than having a good-looking baby Jesus,” Rafa tells us when the discussion turns to the fancy porcelain babies of old that are sometimes placed inside the rosca de reyes at other bakeries. His attitude carries over to the cake’s toppings, as well. Grocery store roscas are so shiny they often look shellacked, and the traditional strips of quince paste and crusted sugar run the entire length of the bread instead of portioned into small sections.

Rafa likes to make his roscas a little more rustic. For this one, he adds toppings of fig at each cardinal direction and little squares of red (strawberry) and green (apple) fruit paste alongside each other so, as he says, “you can have a perfect bite every time.” He also switches out the sugar topping for traditional almond paste, giving his rosca a richer flavor while still creating the same sweet crust. He tops this with a few sliced almonds and a dusting of powdered sugar. Rafa tells us that in Spain the traditional rosca usually has candied orange or lemon peel and is then sprinkled with sugar.

“I’m not a pastry chef. I’m not seeking perfection in everything,” he tells us, as he puts the rosca he’s been working on into the oven. It has been almost 24 hours since we started this adventure, and the rosca is looking pretty perfect to those of us huddled around him, our mouths watering and stomachs grumbling in anticipation. Our journey, like that of the wise men, has been a long one. But the final destination is a warm, crusty slice of rosca de reyes. We chew gingerly, looking out for the baby Jesus. For another year, this ritual lives on.

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