I had the privilege of living in Madrid, Spain, for the greater part of six years where I spent most of my time working as an ESL teacher at a public school during the day, a private ESL tutor on evenings and weekends, and lastly a tour guide focusing on the history and influence of food in Spanish culture.
One of the main holidays in Spain is called Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, and is celebrated on January 6th. The food most typically associated with the holiday in Spain is a roscón de reyes. The roscón is a round donut shaped yeasted bread, often sliced in half and with a layer of whipped cream in the center, beautifully covered with candied fruits. The roscón de reyes made the rounds across the world due to Spanish colonization. The roscón de reyes can be found in the Philippines; in Mexico, where it is called “Rosca de Reyes”; and in Louisiana, USA, as the “kings’ cake.” In all iterations, one lucky person may find a small plastic figurine representing baby Jesus. In each culture, finding the figurine represents something different. In Spain, for example, if you find it you are responsible for bringing a roscón to the party the following year.
The family I tutored celebrated Reyes Magos with a family gift exchange and a feast that lasted all day. This family’s emphasis was on creating their savory dishes, some of which take days. The time saver in organizing and cooking for their Reyes Magos party was not baking any of their sweets at all, rather buying everything from their local panadería, or bakery. While not the case in all households, for this and many others local bakeries are a holiday staple. Leaving the roscón de reyes in the very capable hands of decades-old family-run businesses.
In my role as an English tutor I often used food to bridge cultures, introduce vocabulary, and add a bit of fun to a lesson. My six students consisted of cousins and their parents, ranging in age from 5 to 55 years old. For our own mini Reyes Magos celebration, we decided the recipe we would try together was another Spanish classic called a palmera (palm heart). Palmeras can be found everywhere the roscón de reyes is found, with the exception that palmeras are enjoyed year round. The decision to make this treat with the family was because of how accessible it is; everyone would be able to participate in various stages of this delicious bake.
Palmeras are another sweet that made the global rounds due to colonization, globalization, and its simple recipe. Due to their unique shape, caused by lamination and turns in the dough, they have accrued many names in many places: “palmiers” (palm hearts) in France, “orejas” (ears) in Mexico, “ulleres” (eyeglasses) in the Catalonian and Valenican regions of Spain, “elephant ears” in the US, and “genji pie” in Japan. They are created using a laminated, or layered, dough adding in sugar and butter with each turn.
I had the opportunity to work with this family for over two years, and it was a privilege to be able to bake these palmeras with them. Breaking bread with a culture outside of my own has gifted me immense opportunities to grow and to learn, and I hope this article makes you want to dig deeper into Spanish culture through a culinary lens.
If you’d like to give the palmera recipe a try, you’re in luck. This is the recipe I used with my students, written by Lisa & Tony Sierra on TheSpruceEats.com. (https://www.thespruceeats.com/mini-palmera-pastry-recipe-3082971)
1 pound (500 grams) of puff pastry
½ cup flour (for flouring the rolling pin and surfaces)
3 ounces (100 grams) powdered sugar
1 ounce (30 grams) butter
4 ounces (125mL) honey (optional)
1. Gather ingredients
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit
3. Melt butter in a small saucepan
4. Flour the rolling pin. Roll out the pastry thin, brush with melted butter and coat with powdered sugar. Then, fold the pastry in half, and half again. Repeat this step two or three more times.
5. Once the pastry has been sufficiently turned, or laminated, roll the sides of the pastry tightly so that they meet in the center.
6. Cut the rolled pastry into pieces approximately 1/3 inch (1cm) thick. Place them on a lined baking tray leaving ample space between each of them as they will grow in the oven.
7. Bake on the center rack until the palmeras have a golden color, check around the 20-minute mark.
8. (optional) Warm the honey and drizzle over the fresh palmeras
9. Serve and enjoy!
A photo of our palmeras going into and fresh out of the oven!
A photo of a traditional Spanish roscón de reyes:
Amy is an international educator who recently moved back to the US after six years in Madrid, Spain. Her experience includes teaching English and Cultural Competence in a K-12 environment, program management in higher education, and lecturing on culture and travel to prospective university students. She has a BA in History and Secondary Education from Kean University and an MS in Global and International Education from Drexel University.