Christmas Day is the centerpiece of ‘the holidays,’ here in the United States – a whirlwind of family, food, and gifts all crunched into a 48-hour period. By the time January rolls around, most of us have stuffed unwanted gifts in closets and left the holidays behind. But in many places, Christmas only begins on Christmas day. In Mexico (and lots of other countries), the celebration of the holiday is spread out over twelve days, beginning on December 25th and stretching into the new year to the Feast of the Epiphany, otherwide known as ‘Three Kings Day’ or in Mexico ‘El Dia de Reyes,’ which falls on the 6th of January each year.
El Dia de Reyes celebrates the arrival the Magi, or the Three Kings, who according to biblical lore travelled from afar bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. In Mexico, gifts are exchanged on this day, not on Christmas. And in addition to giving gifts, Mexicans sit down together to enjoy a culinary tradition – the ‘Rosca de Reyes’ or ‘King’s Cake. More like a sweet bread than a cake, the Rosca is round in shape and bejeweled with colorful fruits to signify a King’s crown. Hidden inside the loaf is a figurine of the baby Jesus, in celebration of the hiding of the Christ child from the murderous King Herod.
Each year on El Dia de Reyes, beginning at 3am, Don Paco Lopez Panaderia – a family-owned Mexican bakery in Sunset Park – bakes about 1,500 Rosca de Reyes. This year, photographer Valery Rizzo spent the day at the Panaderia, bringing us a look inside a very old tradition that’s probably new to many of us.
Rosca de Reyes (Kings Ring) baking on rotating shelves inside the large oven used to bake all the different types of sweet bread sold at the Don Paco Lopez Panaderia in Sunset Park Brooklyn.
The Rosca is traditionally eaten on January 6th (The Epiphany), during the celebration of the "Día de Reyes"or Three Kings Day, which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men to find the baby Jesus. Sugar is sprinkled over parts of the Rosca just before it is placed in the oven.
Every day the panaderia bakes a wide assortment of fresh sweet breads and some cookies. Lunch being their largest meal, Mexicans typically enjoy these for breakfast or dinner with hot chocolate or coffee.
An assortment of Conchas or sweet breads topped with sugar paste. Manager and co-owner Miguel Lopez holding a tray of Conchas made with Pitaya, a red fruit found on wild cactus from Mexico.
Don Paco Lopez Panaderia was the first bakery in New York styled after the bakeries in Mexico where you place the breads of your choice on a tray using tongs and then pay for it at the counter. The Brooklyn Children's Museum replicated this system and the bakery in a permanent exhibition.
The bakers work harmoniously together, each having a different role in the production, from mixing and preparing to decorating and baking.
Miguel's brother-in-law Ignacio Cabrera is in charge of all the baking in the oven. Here they are preparing the Telera or salty bread they use for the tortas or Mexican sandwiches in the Panaderia's mercado.
Francisco and Leonila Lopez are co-owners and the parents of the eight brothers and sisters who run the Panaderia. Adjoining the Panaderia is a Mercado which sells Mexican food. An altar for the virgin Guadaloupe hangs on a wall.
A ball of dough is shaped into a ring to create the Rosca de Reyes and figurines are tucked inside the loaf, to symbolize how the baby Jesus was hidden from King Herod. This tradition was by the French, brought to America by the Spaniards and later adapted by Mexico. The French use a Fava bean.
Each ring is then shaped into more of an oval on a baking sheet. On January 6th the Panaderia makes the Roscas all day long, starting at 3 am. They will produce approximately 1,500 Roscas in three different sizes.
Each ring gets an egg wash before being decorated with sugar paste and crystallized fruit, such as multi-colored viznaga (wild cactus), fig, orange and cherries.
Not only does the fruit beautify the Rosca and resemble jewels, but their flavors blend with the slightly citrusy taste of the bread to complete a delightful and unique flavor and aroma.
Roscas are constantly being baked in the oven, monitored with a kitchen timer and baked to golden perfection.
Each finished Rosca is placed in a special box with an instruction sheet on how to enjoy it (with hot chocolate, smiles and happiness.) Each person cuts their own slice of the Rosca. Whomever gets the figurine is required to host another fiesta with tamales on February 2nd (Candelaria Day).
The Panaderia also has a Mercado which sells Puebla-style Tamales, Tortas (Mexican sandwiches), Huaraches, Quesadillas and more. Cheese and Tomatillo Tamales waiting to be cooked.
Roasting Poblano peppers for the chile relleno in the tortas. Cheese tamales with tomatillo sauce and Chicken and jalapeno tamales with tomato sauce are placed upright in a large pot and steamed.
The tamales are fantastic, and cost only $1.50 each. On the plate, a Mole con Perco (Mole with Pork) and a Salsa Verde con Queso (Green Sauce with Cheese) Tamales.
All images © Valery Rizzo. All rights reserved.
Don Paco Lopez Panaderia is located at 4703 4th Avenue, in Sunset Park.
Valery Rizzo is a Park Slope-based photographer with a love of good food and all things Brooklyn. You can find more of her work on her website, and you can follow her food adventures on her photo blog, Eating Brooklyn.