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'King Cake' for Xmas

The standard king cake is oval-shaped demanding that the dough be rolled out into a long tubular shape, writes Annie Datta.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2005 17:53 IST
Annie Datta
Annie Datta

The preparation for Christmas, in India would usually start by end November. King-size cakes would be ordered and later distributed among relatives and friends with the richness of fillings corresponding to feelings. Bakeries work overtime to meet the demand to deliver cakes on time. However, one's reach remained limited to plum cakes till my cousin started sending me Stollen cake (known for its long shelf life) from Germany. Thus one's advance towards the tastes and traditions of another culture.

While in Portugal, one discovered that Christmas here is not complete without Bolo Rei or what one calls the King's Cake. Its availability marks the beginning of the festive season. It is one of the most sought after commodity in pastry shops and hypermarkets. What makes this particular cake so special? Ring-shaped like a crown and enriched with fruits and nuts, the Bolo Rei symbolizes the gifts that the three Magi (wise men) brought at the birth of Jesus.

The outer part of the cake represents gold (signifying material power) while the dry fruits within stand for myrrh (sacrifice) and the aroma for incense (nobility). Legend says that when the star that announced the Birth appeared to the three travellers, it led to a dispute as to who would have the right to take the offerings to the destined place. A baker is said to have resolved the issue by hiding a bean inside the cake. And that marked the beginning of the popularity of the Bolo Rei. A traditional dessert, this fruitcake with perfumed liquor is typically a new-year cake that marks the beginning of the holiday season.

While in neighbouring Spain, January 6 is reserved for gifts in memory of the historical journey; in Portugal people eat Bolo Rei on this day of Reis Magos. Even today, it seems, one looks for the same hidden bean (fava) and secret present in the layers of the cake that once decided the chosen one. The lucky one is supposed to offer this cake to others on the following Christmas. The cake is available from the end of November to the beginning of January. The Bolo Rei made its own journey to Portugal in the 19th century gaining popularity in Lisbon and Porto. The Portuguese immigrants carried the tradition to colonies like Brazil.

The standard king cake is oval-shaped demanding that the dough be rolled out into a long tubular shape. Decoration is done with granulated sugar and crystallized fruit. There are variations to the traditional type as iced versions take its place. King cakes could also be filled with apple, cherry, cream cheese, or other kinds of fanciful fillings. In Portugal the traditional type is preferred and often in accompaniment with Port wine.

During Christmas, besides the Bolo Rei, the menu focuses on boiled codfish (bacalhau cozido) with potatoes. Yet another dessert called rabanadas is also popular. Other fixed features to the celebration are: the evergreen pine tree, the Christmas star, the garland of mistletoe all of which signify camaraderie and reunion. Christmas is in fact more than a mere exchange of gifts.

First Published: Nov 26, 2005 00:00 IST