From the beginning of November to the end of January, it’s impossible to pass a pastelaria (pastry shop) without being bombarded by the ubiquitous Bolo Rei (King Cake). This is one of, if not the most, popular Christmas desserts throughout Portugal, consisting of a sweet, brioche-like bread dough packed with eggs and filled with various nuts, raisins and crystallized fruit. Essentially, a much tastier version of a fruitcake; and thus its wild popularity for three months out of the year. In fact, Lisboners are so crazy for Bolo Reis, that the most famous pastry shops have lines out the door every weekend throughout the season; it’s like the Black Friday for King Cake! (photo by Alberto)
“Let Them Eat King Cake”
The Bolo Rei originated in France, during the reign of Louis XIV, when le Gâteau dês Róis was traditionally consumed between Christmas Day and the Epiphany – Jan. 6th. The French adopted their tradition from the Roman pagans who created a “party cake” with a single fava bean hidden deep within. Whoever found the bean would be crowned the “king” of the party: a fab tradition, but ideal for a Christian holiday. Hence, the French added a twist: as the legend goes, whoever found the fava bean inside the cake would symbolically be the first “king” to present their gift to the baby Jesus on Epiphany, also known as “3 Kings Day” in Iberia and other predominately Catholic/Orthodox countries. In addition, it was customary to require a cake a day between Christmas and Epiphany, in celebration of the 12 days of Christmas. The king cake was later abolished in France after the Revolution in 1789, but as the French patisseries didn’t want to lose business, they continued to make and sell it under the name: Gâteau dês Sans-cullotes – “Cake Without Pants” in reference to the name given to the Parisian working class who played an important role in fueling the Revolution.
The Bolo Rei Revolution
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the King Cake made its first appearance in Portugal, after Portuguese businessman Baltazar Castanheiro Júnior brought a recipe from Paris that was adopted by Gregório, one of the confectioners at Confeitaria Nacional (the oldest and most known pastry shop in Lisbon, founded by Baltazar’s father). Interestingly, this recipe was not the Parisian version of king cake, made of puff pastry and cream (known more commonly as la Galette des Rois); but instead, the recipe popularized in the southern Loire region, made with a sweet brioche dough and decorated with candied fruit. Each main component of the cake is also supposed to represent the gifts of the three kings: The golden, glazed crust for gold, the dried fruits, nuts and candied fruit for myrrh and the sweet, fragrant aroma for frankincense.
By 1890, the Bolo Rei reached Porto, introduced by the Confeitaria de Cascais, founded by Francisco Júlio Cascais, who had also brought the recipe from Paris. The Bolo Rei eventually spread to other parts of Portugal over the years but coincidentally, just as in France, the king cake was at risk of extinction. After the Portuguese Revolution of the Republic in 1910, the word “king” became a negative connotation of the old monarchy. So the Portuguese pastry shops renamed it to: the unimaginative “Ex-bolo Rei”, and the more popular Bolo de Natal (Christmas Cake) and Bolo de Ano Novo (New Year’s Cake). The most popular was Bolo Nacional – named after the original pastry shop Confeitaria Nacional who had introduced it. Radical new Republicans preferred to call it Bolo Presidente or Bolo Arriaga– after the first President of the Republic.
Bye Bye Fava, Hello Rainha
However, none of the alternative names stuck over the years; and by the end of the 20th century, neither did the fava bean tradition. Finding the fava bean in a Portuguese King Cake meant that you were destined to purchase the next cake – an irritation to most. Therefore people did what most toddlers do, they hid it. Swallowing the bean before anyone noticed, along with the occasional small toy that was hidden for children, created a stream of choking incidents. Hence, the Portuguese government banned the sales of Bolo Reis containing any small object hidden inside.
Nowadays, the original King Cake recipe is by far the most popular; and Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon sells it. Second to the king is the queen- the Bolo Rainha, which is a king cake without the candied fruit, and a larger mixture of nuts – almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and sometimes hazelnuts, with raisins. The first version of Queen Cake was actually called Bolo Rei Escangalhado- “Broken King Cake”, as it was a broken ring that resembled more of a long filled roll of folded, filled layers. This broken King Cake contains nuts and raisins, in addition to one more ingredient: candied chila or gila– a speckled green pumpkin that looks like clear spaghetti squash on the inside. (photo by Confeitaria Nacional )
This queen cake was invented by the pastry shop Confeitaria Paula in the northern city of Braga in the late 1990s, who patented the name and tried to trademark the confection as well, bringing several other pastry shops to court in violation. In the end, the court ruled that no one could trademark the confection of this cake when it could easily be made anywhere in Portugal. Thus, “Bolo Rainha”- queen cake became the nationally known name for this modified version of Bolo Rei, (though Confeitaria Paula still makes the original recipe with chila in Braga). Oddly enough, the same day I began this article, I had the most surprising fortune of receiving a Bolo Rainha as a gift from someone who had no idea I was writing about this. And it happened to be a Queen Cake from one of the best (line out the door) pastry shops in the Lisbon area, Pastelaria Garrett in Estoril. It is also by far the best version I’ve tasted of any of the Christmas cake royalty, made with just almonds, pine nuts, walnuts and golden raisins. It retained its wonderful aroma of fresh baked bread despite being bought the night before, as well as staying soft and fluffy in texture.
So this holiday season, if you’re looking for a tasty alternative to that hideous, hard as a doorstop fruit cake (there’s always that one person in your family who likes it), try making a Portuguese Bolo Rei. Or better yet, a Bolo Rainha in my opinion, as candied fruit is hard to buy and messy to make.
Check out this Bolo Rainha recipe by one of my favorite Portuguese “chefs”, Espresso Newspaper’s very cute and furry feline Chef Tiger, who does some fantastic step by step photo slideshows of his “stress-free” recipes accompanied by relaxing music. I have also included some of my add-on ingredients for more freedom to mix and match the dried fruits and nuts to your taste!
Happy Holidays from Portugal!