Bolo Rei (King’s Cake)

Bolo-rei is a staple Portuguese Christmas food served for dessert. If you like fruitcake, you’ll love bolo-rei. If you don’t like fruitcake, well…

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Bolo Rei
When the holiday season rolls around, the Portuguese bolo-rei cake starts making an appearance, and different variations on the theme pop up throughout Europe as well. (In New Orleans, too, for Mardi Gras.) These “king’s cakes” as they’re called in English are generally spiced, come in a ring shape, and contain some combination of crystalized fruits, nuts, liqueurs, and an unholy amount of sugar.  The tradition dates back centuries to the Roman Saturnalia festivals celebrating the god Saturn that took place in the month of December.     
You will begin to see bolo-rei for sale by late November in most Portuguese bakeries, grocery stores, cafés, and virtually any locale making even a half-hearted nod to Christmas cheer.  (Gas station bolo-rei, anyone?) No Portuguese Christmas table is complete without at least a decorative bolo-rei that no one eats, unless of course we’re talking about a “modern” family that speaks the quiet part out loud: bolo-rei is…not that good.
Now, before I completely sell out my adoptive country, let me be clear that there any many, many delightful Portuguese desserts.  In fact, the sheer creativity of the Portuguese with eggs and sugar is truly remarkable, as I’ve talked about before.  And mouth-watering, of course.  But you know the one about fruitcake in the US, where there’s only one fruitcake in existence that people just keep regifting each other over the years because no one actually likes it? I feel the same about bolo-rei.  I’ve never gone out with someone who said, “Yum, give me a slice of that delicious bolo-rei for dessert!”  By contrast, I’ve been to many a holiday dinner where the bolo-rei sits on the table all night with exactly one slice eaten by the oldest person in attendance who can’t be bothered with the overwhelming variety of far superior dessert options.  (I don’t know how Portuguese dessert tables at Christmas don’t buckle under the weight of all those sweets.)
Bolo Rei slice
The first and only slice of bolo-rei that will be served from this cake.
But wait – what is bolo-rei anyway? The basic recipe for bolo-rei is essentially a yellow cake to which dried fruits, like raisins and crystalized cherries, and nuts in a Port wine / brandy mixture are added, often spiced with ginger and anise, depending upon the tastes of the chef.  The cake is topped off with larger pieces of crystalized fruit and candied orange or lemon peel for color, and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  Bolo-rei has a similar taste profile to American fruitcake, though it’s not as dense or moist.  (It’s also not easy to make, as my husband Nuno and I discovered one year in the United States where our bolo-rei was on the wrong side of edible – and he was a great cook.) In fact, if you don’t get the first slice on the first day it’s made, bolo-rei is kind of like a cross between the Sahara with maraschino cherries.  Maybe for this reason people claim that it makes for a good toast with butter slathered on in the days after Christmas, but the logistics of putting a slice of bread full of crystalized fruit in a toaster, just…no.
fruitcake
Fruitcake. Brown, comes in a tin, can survive a nuclear winter: what’s not to love?
Bolo Rei 3
If we’re going strictly on visuals, bolo-rei wins, hands down.
In Roman times, and in some places still today, king’s cakes would have a hidden bean cooked into the dough, beans being a common symbol of fertility in the ancient word.  The king’s cake in Spain, roscón de reyes, preserves this tradition, but with a twist.  If you find the haba, or bean, in your slice, you have to buy the next roscón de reyes.  If you find the figurita, a small ceramic figurine, often a baby, then you are the “king” of the party or have good luck.  Portugal did have a similar tradition, but today it’s more of a local custom than something you’re likely to find in the average store-bought bolo-rei.
Whereas Spain’s roscón de reyes typically is only served on January 6th for the Epiphany – the celebration of the biblical visit of the Three King’s to the baby Jesus – Portugal’s bolo-rei lingers around in stores for months.  I assume that’s because there is continued demand for fresh bolo-rei cakes in Portugal well into the winter, and not because no one bought them for Christmas and the cakes’ shelf life is basically eternal due to the preserving effect of all that crystalized sugar.
I’ll wrap up with one final heresy: roscón de reyes tastes better than bolo-rei.  It’s light and fluffy, and sometimes has a crème filling.  There must be a palate here in Portugal that prefers dry, anise-flavored cake, but we can’t all be perfect. 

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do! 
I fear that I *may* have undersold bolo-rei with this post, and, well, that was the intention.  But since I want you, dear reader, to make your own informed decisions, I’ll leave you with the winner of the best bolo-rei in Portugal this year from the Padaria e Pastelaria Flor bakery in Aveiro. This cake would make a lovely, festive decorative object to adorn the picture-perfect Christmas dinner table.  I guess you could eat it, too.
Bolo rei da Padaria e Pastelaria Flor de Aveiro
Best bolo-rei in Portugal this year. Image source: Expresso
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