#223- Make a Roscón de Reyes
Many regions in the world make a King’s Cake of one sort or another. Perhaps you’ve see the festive King’s Cakes made for Mardi Gras, baked with a plastic baby inside? Whoever gets the slice with the baby is supposed to have good luck. The person is also supposed to provide the King Cake the following year.
For Epiphany, The French make a Galette des Rois baked with a coin inside. (In fact, as I write this, my cousin is parading through the streets of Paris wearing a paper crown on his head. Since he was the lucky one who was served the piece with the coin today.)
In Mexico, the King’s Cake is called Roscón de Reyes. It is part of the Epiphany feast celebration. My mother lives in Mexico and when I spoke to her today she said that it is a national holiday where gifts are exchanged and parties are held.
Being curious about Epiphany, I began doing a little online research. I found an Episcopalian church in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles, called The Church of the Epiphany. It has been an important part of the community since 1883. I thought it would be interesting to drive there, despite the pouring rain, and learn more about it. I also thought Lincoln Heights would be a good place to find a Mexican bakery and see what the Roscón de Reyes really looks like before I attempted to make one.
I arrived at the church around lunch time. There aren’t any services on weekdays, so it looked like it might be closed. I stepped inside through a partially opened door. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw scaffolding spread across one side of the church. A man who was perched at the top of a ladder asked me what I needed. I told him that I was interested in speaking to the clergy. He said that would be Father Tom, and he would be back in a couple of hours. I looked more closely and realized that the man was part of a crew called Judson Windows. They were replacing all the stained glass windows on the left side of the church. He asked what I was doing there. (Good question.) I told him that I’m writing a blog and I was grateful when he didn’t ask more questions. I didn’t know how to explain how I arrived there whilst writing about a cake.
I made myself busy taking pictures in the church. There were papeles picados, paper lace garlands, strewn from one side of the church to the other. There is an Epiphany window designed by Tiffany and a tremendous pipe organ designed by Henry Pilcher. It was quite dark inside, so getting pictures was challenging. It’s also a very small church. It serves a parish of about 200 people.
The window workers sat down to eat lunch. I asked them a bit about the work they were doing. They told me that it is difficult working with lead because it expands, but doesn’t contract, so the windows are bound to fail over time. I asked them if it was dangerous working with lead. They said no, they just needed to wash their hands frequently and be careful about how much they breathe in. I looked at their spread of burritos and tacos and asked them how well they knew the area. I told them that I wanted to buy a Roscón de Reyes. “Oh, that’ll be easy to find, ” said one of the men who had been silent and suspicious until then.
I smiled to myself, you can always tell food people.
He then became chatty, explaining at length why one cake would be better than another and gave me directions to King Taco. He said the better bakery was only a few doors down from King Taco.
“Wait…what?” King Taco has Roscón de Reyes? I had never been to King Taco, but I had heard people claim that it is the best fast food taco in Los Angeles. I’ve never had one, so I figured I would go see if it lived up to the hype while I waited for Father Tom to return.
King Taco was crowded. I circled a few times before I found street parking. The street was flooded and I stepped out of the Jeep and into a lake. I sloshed my way into the place and got in the long line. I was surprised to see that King Tacos are actually soft tacos. I had imagined that they were crispy tacos, since I have heard people mentioning them in the same breath as Tito’s Tacos.
It amused me that the stern looking officers walked across King Taco exactly in step to the beat of, “My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna get in trouble.” Hey na ne na.
While I was waiting in line, I saw a large stack of what looked like purple donut boxes off to the side of the cashier (near a religious altar). I asked if those were the Roscón de Reyes and the cashier said,”Yes, but we have a bakery next door.”
I got my food and sat down. They had called my number a few times in Spanish and I missed it, so they came out from behind the counter and asked me what my number was. They then pointed to the place my food had been sitting. Oops. Who feels like the gringo now?
I had ordered a carnitas burrito AND a carne asada taco which was clearly too much food, but I wanted to try both since I didn’t know when I’d be back. I was thirsty, but I didn’t want soda so I ordered a Pina, a pineapple drink that was very refreshing.
The taco was piled high with pork and green salsa. It was as good as any food truck taco I’ve had and the burrito was fresh and not heavy. The difference between King Taco and any of the big chain fast food Mexican restaurants out there, is that King Taco actually tasted like food. It wasn’t just a hot, salty, gooey facsimile.
I wandered next door to the bakery. There was a display cabinet full of pan dulces, Mexican sweet breads, though it looked like it had been hit pretty hard by the morning customers. They were selling Roscón de Reyes in three sizes. The medium size cake was twenty dollars and about 15″x18″. The rain was really coming down now, so I just grabbed one and headed back to the church.
Here’s a full shot of the bread and the baby we found inside.
When I got back to the church they said Father Tom had returned and left again. He was only at the bank, though, and would be back in a few minutes. He did walk in a few minutes later chatting on his smart phone and sporting a cross-body bag that looked like it had been woven in South America.
He was friendly and invited me into his office to chat. I asked him about Epiphany and he said that the significance of the epiphany was that the three kings who were not Jews, saw the Christ child and said, “God is here.”
I asked him about the neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. He said that it is mostly Latino, Chinese, Viet Chinese, and Vietnamese. He said that the area is becoming gentrified, due to its proximity to downtown. He said the attraction is also due to the quaint neighborhood feel and the cool old houses, many of which are in their original state. The opening of the Gold Line has made it much easier to commute from Lincoln Heights, as well.
He said that having a parish of only 200 means that he knows everyone. He is on a mission right now to get tutors for the high schoolers so that they can do better on their SAT/ACT tests. He is eager for them to be able to compete with students on the other side of town who can afford tutors and study programs.
I asked him if the organ was working and he said no. When he came to the church five years ago, everything had been quite run down. He raised the money to have the windows replaced, but the organ will cost another $29,000. He told me about an organization called the Epiphany Conservation Trust who is working hard on behalf of the church.
Father Tom explained the Epiphany feast they will hold on January 10th. They will have a Naming celebration, as their church is named for the Epiphany. They will have a bilingual mass, a guest preacher, and then a costumed celebration where children dress up like the three kings, Joseph, Mary, shepherds and angels. Afterwards they have the feast.
He told me that something noteworthy about the church is that it was integral to the Chicano movement of the 60s and 70s. Fathers John Luce and Roger Wood allowed the church to serve as the home of La Raza, the Chicano newspaper. The Brown Berets also met there to plan political action. In 2005, the church was designated a historical landmark. Father Tom said that there is an HBO movie called Walkout, that documents some of the history of that movement.
His phone rang and I stood up to leave. He said that he needed to go out and buy a Roscón de Reyes for the January 10th celebration. I looked outside at the downpour and said, “Let me do it for you.” I told him that I knew where the bakery was and I wanted to see it anyway.
The second bakery was called El Pavo Bakery and it has four locations in Los Angeles. They had three sizes of Roscón de Reyes, so I bought a large one for Father Tom and a small one for myself. Now he had a cake for his Epiphany celebration and I had enough for a tasting at home.
I stopped at the market to get the ingredients for the Roscón de Reyes that I still had to make. On a lark, I looked to see if Ralphs Encino had a Roscón de Reyes in their bakery. They did!
I had hoped to make a version that I saw on YouTube. It looked fabulous, but the video was in Spanish and the Google Translation of the recipe made me nervous. I settled on a recipe from King Arthur Flour, which had a dried fruit and nut filling and used instant yeast.
Note to readers: Do not look for candied fruit twelve days after Christmas in regular grocery stores. It is ALL GONE. I opted just to squeeze all the liquid out of maraschino cherries for my bread, and I garnished it with sliced almonds and sparkling sugar.
The kids and I were in agreement over all the Roscón de Reyes. The King Arthur Flour bread rated highest (it’s hard to compete with fresh out of the oven), then El Pavo, then King Taco. But we would have been happy eating any of them.
I had fun following my curiosity today. I learned about a part of Los Angeles that I was unfamiliar with, I tasted some good food, I got to see the gushing Los Angeles river full to the brim, and I cooked something for the first time.
I guess you could say it was a bit of an…..epiphany.
359 to go!