Bolo Rainhas, Queen cake, popular in Portugal at Christmas

Christmas in Portugal is yet another excuse to break out the cakes. While the colourful Bolo Rei (King cake) may be the star of the show, the less glitzy Bolo Rainha (Queen cake) is the Portuguese Christmas cake for me. Especially since I’ve had the privilege of learning a few of its secrets.

Behind the scenes at Pastelaria Capuchinhas, Viseu
Behind the scenes at Pastelaria Capuchinhas, Viseu

The secret to Bolo Rainha

The ingredients and methods for making the dough for Bolo Rainha are the same as for Bolo Rei and can involve a surprising amount of alcohol.

On a behind-the-scenes trip to Pastelaria Capuchinha in Viseu, with Pedro and Franziska from Portugal on a Plate, I learned how the proprietor adapted Chef Silva’s recipe 28 years ago to create her own sought after version.

I am sworn to secrecy but let me just say that the blend of Portuguese spirits, liqueurs and fortified wines is potent and full of flavours that come through in the cooked cake.

Most recipes simply use port wine but there’s nothing to stop you experimenting at home by adding such things as Licor Beirão.

You can learn how to make Bolo Rei and Bolo Rainha via an online class at another authentic Portuguese bakery.

If neither of these cakes appeal, João has another class teaching you how to make 5 traditional Portuguese Christmas desserts.

Freshly baked Portuguese Christmas cakes
Freshly baked Portuguese Christmas cakes

King or queen cake – what’s the difference?

Bolo Rei has a long history and its shape and golden dough represent the gift of gold brought by the Magi as a gift for the Baby Jesus. The sweet, spicy aromas symbolise the frankincense while the bright crystallised fruit on top of the cake are the myrrh.

Not everyone likes the fruit, however, so the Bolo Rainha merely has a hint of candied orange peel and is otherwise stuffed with sultanas, walnuts and hazelnuts with a generous sprinkling of walnuts on top.

How they make the holes

A casual enquiry about the different size of holes in the centre of the cakes led to a hands-on voyage of discovery, for Pedro at least. Apparently, the size of the hole depends on how big your elbows are. And rolling the dough into a ball requires a specific technique. Once you’ve mastered the art of making a ball, use your elbow to make a hole then pull and shape it into a ring. Simple.

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Note: The dough used to teach Pedro was not subsequently cooked so no one will be picking jumper fibres from their teeth. 

Bolo Rainha – eat it quick

Despite the amount of alcohol, Bolo Rainha doesn’t hold a great deal of moisture and will dry out fairly quickly if you’re not careful. Try to get a freshly-baked one if at all possible and aim to scoff the lot within a day or two.

Pin for later

Bolo rainha, a Portuguese Christmas cake
Bolo rainha, a Portuguese Christmas cake

What’s your Christmas cake of choice?


  1. We are definitely going to have Bolo Rainha this Christmas. Thank you, Julie, for your fantastic blog! Merry Christmas to you and yours??❤️?
    From Julie in Tavira

  2. I’ve been seeing these in the bakeries. Looks like a new tradition for us to start in our newly adopted country. Merry Christmas, Julie from Lagos. Anita

  3. Actually, I love American-style fruit cake. Nuts and candied fruit.

  4. This is my favorite too, Julie. I don’t care for all the candied fruit in Bolo de Rei. Merry Christmas to you (from Austria, where the cake–and bread–options are endless!).

  5. looks yummy, eating our Christmas cake now. This year it is our Australian recipe.

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