The end of the Christ­mas Sea­son on the Azores – 6th of janu­ary, Epi­phany, King Cake (Bolo Rei) & Queen Cake (Bolo Rainha)

6th of Janu­ary, Epi­phany (also known as King’s Day)

What is Epi­phany cel­eb­rat­ing? What are the Epi­phany tra­di­tions in Hun­gary and in Por­tugal?

The 6th of Janu­ary, Epi­phany – also known as King’s Day – is a feast day mark­ing the last day of the 12 day long Christ­mas cel­eb­ra­tions. This day also marks the begin­ning of the Car­ni­val – also known as Mardi Gras – sea­son. It is cus­tom­ary for Chris­ti­ans in many loc­al­it­ies – Hun­gary included – to remove their Christ­mas dec­or­a­tions. Tra­di­tion­ally, people used to believe that tree-spirits lived in the trees, holly, and ivy in their homes which brought bless­ings and good har­vest. These spir­its would seek shel­ter there dur­ing the cold winter, but if they weren’t released after Christ­mas their good ener­gies would be gone.

When Jesus was born, Janu­ary 6th marked the day when John the Baptist came to bap­tise him, and the three Kings (also known as three Wise Men) came with their gifts for the baby. I am not sure if the concept of nameday exists in oth­er coun­tries, but in Hun­gary, this day is also the nameday for the three Kings: Mel­chi­or, Cas­par, and Balthas­ar. Accord­ing to the gos­pel the Wise Men fol­lowed the star of Beth­le­hem to Judea to pay homage to the new­born king of the Jews. But after not find­ing him in Jer­u­s­alem, King Herod sent them to Beth­le­hem where they found the child and offered him gifts of gold, frankin­cense, and myrrh.

In Italy the 6th of Janu­ary marks the arrival of Befana, the Good Witch, who brings presents to the kids. In East­ern Churches fol­low­ing the Juli­an cal­en­dar – for example the Ortho­dox Rus­si­ans – this is the first day of Christ­mas cel­eb­ra­tions (because of the 13-day dif­fer­ence between that cal­en­dar and the gen­er­ally used Gregori­an cal­en­dar). Con­sum­ing a Three Kings Cake is a pop­u­lar Epi­phany cus­tom. This cake is called Roscón de Reyes in Spain, Vasilo­pita in Greece, Galette des Reis in France and Switzer­land, and Bolo-Rei in Por­tugal.

Bolo-Rei – Tra­di­tion­al Por­tuguese Christ­mas Cake

The tra­di­tion­al Christ­mas cake of Por­tugal – and thus the Azores – the Bolo-Rei (which trans­lates as „king cake”) has a soft, white dough which resembles bri­oche, but also is sim­il­ar to a fruit bread. The col­or­ful cake itself is round with a large hole in the centre, resem­bling a crown covered with crys­tal­lized dried fruit. The beau­ti­fully wrapped Bolo-Rei is sold from mid-November onwards. The Bolo-Rei is baked from a soft, white dough, with rais­ins, vari­ous nuts and crys­tal­lized fruit. This staple dessert in any Por­tuguese home dur­ing the hol­i­days is is usu­ally eaten around Christ­mas, from Decem­ber 25 until Epi­phany (Dia de Reis) on the 6th of Janu­ary. Accord­ing to Chris­ti­an legend the cake serves as a rep­res­ent­a­tion of the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men with the golden crust (gold), fruits (myrrh), and it’s deli­cious smell (frankin­cense). The col­or­ful and crys­tal­lized dried fruits also rep­res­ents the gem­stones of the crown. Also included is the char­ac­ter­ist­ic dried fava bean, and tra­di­tion dic­tates that who­ever finds the fava has to pay for the Bolo-Rei next year. Accord­ing to oth­er cus­toms, the per­son who finds the bean in her or his slice will be lucky all year round, or will be the Queen / King of the day. A small prize (usu­ally a small met­al, plastic, or ceram­ic toy shaped like a king of like baby Jesus) was also included with­in the cake. The inclu­sion of the prize has been dis­con­tin­ued accord­ing to EU reg­u­la­tions, due to poten­tial chok­ing haz­ards. In the United States many bakers have recently been pla­cing the prize out­side of the cake, and leav­ing the hid­ing to the cus­tom­er because there is a poten­tial of cus­tom­ers chok­ing on or swal­low­ing the prize, and bakers want to stay clear of this liab­il­ity. Accord­ing to the legend when the three Wise Men arrived to baby Jesus they could not decide who will offer his gifts first to the new­born, the loc­al baker had the bril­liant idea of hid­ing one bean in a bri­oche and cut­ting it into three parts and who­ever finds the bean gets to offer his present first. The „female ver­sion” of Bolo-Rei is Bolo-Rainha (which trans­lates as „queen cake”) is made with only dried nuts, without the crys­tal­lized dried fruits.

King Cake Recipe

If this short intro­duc­tion made you curi­ous about this won­der­ful cake and you would like to try and make this fam­ous Por­tuguese sweet at home then you can find a Bolo-Rei recipe here.

This year (2017) was the first time I had the pleas­ure of try­ing this cake, thanks to my Por­tuguese friend Nuno. Thank you so much Nuno! Nuno gif­ted a beau­ti­fully wrapped Bolo-Rei to my fam­ily, which we shared at home in Hun­gary on Christ­mas Eve. It was deli­cious, abso­lutely recom­men­ded. Most Azorean baker­ies are selling uniquely pack­aged Bolo-Rei, but there are lot of places where you can get a slice (mean­ing you don’t have to buy an entire cake). Since I have yet to find a gluten-free ver­sion of Bolo-Rei, it was mainly my fam­ily who did the „qual­ity assur­ance”, but they were delighted and would recom­mend you try it, too.



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