Portuguese King Cake

Bolo-Rei or King Cake (sometimes King’s Cake) is the king of the Christmas Cakes, but it is also a centerpiece in many other traditional parties in Portugal. This cake has a long tradition in Portugal, and it is a “mandatory” presence at many Portuguese parties, namely at Christmas, New Year, King’s Day, and Easter.

In this article, we will explore what is the Bolo Rei, its history, and the various types of bolo rei that have emerged – from the original to the most recent deconstructed cakes with different fillings.

History of the King Cake

Bolo Rei is an indispensable presence in the Christmas in Portugal, but its origin is not Portugal but France. The Bolo Rei was created at the court of Louis XIV of France to celebrate the New Year and the King’s Day.

Bolo Rei first appeared in Portugal at the Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon in 1869-1870, made by Frenchman Gregoire. This pastry chef adapted the recipe from the south of the Loire for the crown-shaped king cake with yeast dough. From that point on, the king cake spread through Lisbon and the country, became appreciated by all Portuguese, and cooked in other Portuguese pastry shops.

With the establishment of the Portuguese Republic in 1910, attempts were made to change the name to Christmas cake or New Year’s cake. Sometimes and as parody, it was called the ex-bolo rei, “the former king cake.” All this because the new republican regime did not welcome the existence of a cake called bolo-rei, that is, with such a monarchical connotation.

Currently, the tradition of the king cake is fully established, and no one calls it any other name. It is a dessert cherished by Portuguese families and cannot miss the main feast days, Christmas, New Year, Kings, and Easter.

King cake is also traditional in Spain, where the recipe is only slightly different from the Portuguese version. In France, its country of origin, there is the so-called Gâteau des Rois made with brioche dough and is traditional in the south of France, and the Galette des Rois is made with puff pastry more traditional in the Paris region.

Kings cake history
King Cakes in the shop window of Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon, the pastry shop where the Portuguese Bolo-Rei was created

Bolo Rei / King Cake Tradition

Traditionally, the bolo rei is a dried and candied fruit cake. It is shaped like a crown, round with a hole in the middle. It is made of sweet dough leavened with a bit of port wine.

In the past, they would put a bean and a small gift in the cake dough. The tradition of placing the bean in the cake dates back to the Roman Empire. During the celebrations of Saturnalia (festival in honor of Saturn), the Romans put a bean in a round pie. Whoever found the bean was elected the king of the party. The tradition was maintained, and whoever found the bean in the bolo rei is the king of the party and has to pay for next year’s bolo rei.

As for the gift, it was also customary to put small porcelain or metal gift. The gift was typically a metallic object with different shapes, such as animals, characters, and plants/vegetables, and the children especially desired it. Nowadays, due to food safety rules imposed by the EU, it is forbidden to put the gift and the bean inside the cake.

Over time, there were also several variations of the king cake, such as the Queen cake, the deconstructed king cake, and king cakes with chocolate, soft eggs, and even apples. Let’s explore the most popular types of king cakes below.

Types of King Cake

Traditional King Cake

The traditional Bolo Rei or king cake is the original cake that is almost mandatory on Christmas tables. The typical Bolo Rei has a round shape with a hole in the middle. And it’s made with sweet yeast dough, lemon and orange zest, and a little port wine. The King Cake has candied fruit and nuts in the dough, and at the end, it is decorated with candied fruit and powdered sugar.

The best kings cake are made in pastry shops or at home and, if possible, should be eaten on the day of production. Although they have a dense dough, they are well filled with nuts and candied fruit and should be moist and fluffy. Note: King Cakes may have a mild flavor of port wine, but this should be very light.

Every year there are “contests for “The Best Bolo-R” in Portugal” held by the Association of Commerce and Industry of Bakery Pastry and Similars. Every year a panel of judges chooses the best Bolo-Rei in Portugal and even its variants such as Bolo Rainha or Bolo Rei escangalhado, or even the Christmas bryear’sf you want to discover, this year’s winners see here.

King cake types: the traditional
Traditional King cake with candied fruit and nuts

Queen Cake or Bolo Rainha

Bolo Rainha is a more recent version of Bolo-Rei. It’s the same as Bolo-Rei, but with the difference that it doesn’t have candied fruit. It is the ideal cake if you don’t like the typical candied fruit of the king cakes.

The Bolo-Rainha should also have a dense, moist, and fluffy dough but should have nuts (raisins, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and, if you’re lucky, pine nuts) in abundance.

Types of King Cake: Queen cake
Homemade Bolo Rainha, only with nuts in the dough

Chocolate King Cake

This is the ideal cake for chocolate lovers. This cake is made with the same type of sweet dough as the previous ones, with port wine, lemon, and orange zest, but instead of using candied fruit, we use chocolate pieces and decorate it with chocolate chips. There are also Chocolate King Cakes that have mixed nuts like walnuts and hazelnuts, which go very well with chocolate.

There are other versions of the Chocolate King Cake that are filled with melted chocolate paste instead of taking pieces of chocolate. The sweet yeast dough is made, then the dough is rolled out in the shape of a large rectangle and covered with the chocolate paste. Roll the cake as if it were a pie and join the ends to have the shape of a ring. It is simply divine.

King Cake with sweet eggs

Bolo-Rei com Ovos Moles (sweet eggs king cake) is similar to the chocolate king cake, but instead of the cake being filled with chocolate, it is filled with typical Portuguese sweet eggs. The dough is made the same way; it is then rolled out into a rectangle and stuffed with sweet eggs and egg strands. The dough has to be rolled like a pie, and then the ends of the cake are joined to get the shape of a ring. As you can imagine, it’s lovely.

This version of Bolo-Rei is more difficult to find in bakeries, but when you see it, seize the opportunity or make it at home. Here is one delicious recipe suggestion.

King Cake traditions
Bolo Rei with sweet eggs from Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon

Braided King Cake or Christmas Braid (trança de natal)

The Braided king cake or Christmas Braid is a variation of the traditional Bolo-Rei. What varies in this version is that the king cake is braided and can be joined in the form of a ring being a braided king cake, or it can only be in the form of a braid being a Christmas braid.

To make this Bolo-Rei, you have to cut the dough in half or three parts and make a braid. The dough can be filled with nuts and candied fruit or filled with soft eggs, chocolate, or other more imaginative fillings like apple and raisins or cinnamon. It is a delicious version and tends to be moister when it has stuffing.

Christmas braid, a modern version of the king cake
Modern variants of the King Cake – “trança de Natal” of Christmas Braind filled with chocolate and almonds.

Deconstructed King Cake or Bolo-rei escangalhado

Bolo-Rei Escancalhado is the latest version of Bolo-rei, sometimes has a rectangular shape others it is shapeless. This version of Bolo-Rei does not have candied fruit; it usually has nuts, gila jam, and a pastry cream filling. But as with all versions of Bolo-Rei, the filling can vary, with egg and chocolate candy versions, for example.

To make this cake, you have to spread out the dough in the shape of a rectangle, roll the dough like a pie and finally cut the dough into slices and then assemble it, giving a torn-up effect. This cake is a delight, and it is a good version for those who don’t usually like the traditional Bolo-Rei since it is more humid and can have some interesting fillings instead of the traditional ones.

Bolo Rei Escangalhado
Types of King Cake: Bolo Rei: Bolo Rei escangalhado filled with chocolate, and nuts

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