Thursday, 5 January 2017

Twelfth Night Cake

Last year, I wrote a post about the celebrations traditionally associated with Twelfth Night and the now almost forgotten Twelfth-Day, which you can find here:

Twelfth Night Revels

The fifth of January is ‘the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night eve, arid is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day,’ states William Hone in his Every-day Book of 1825. Twelfth-Day, the sixth of January, is the Epiphany and commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is on this night (Twelfth Night) that decorations are taken down and the King and Queen of the Bean are elected through the auspices of the Twelfth Cake. On the eve of the Epiphany, it is still the custom in parts of the country to toast the apple orchards with pitchers of cider, usually by forming a circle around one of the most fruitful trees and drinking ‘the following toast three times.’

“Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
hence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!”

In days of yore, itinerant minstrels were given to taking a bowl of spiced wine from house to house, especially those of the gentry, where they expected the best of hospitality and to be toasted for their musical endeavours from the wassail bowl. It is a night for games, singing joyous songs and much merriment.

On Twelfth-Day, the confectioners pulled out all the stops to create fabulous displays in their shop windows, of a wide range of cakes and delicacies to suit all purses. These ranged from the most exotically decorated and iced confections – the largest on an enormous salver – to simple buns.

Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a
hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day.
The gingerbread-bakers—there are not many, compared with their number when
the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods,—even the reduced
gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly
interpolate them among their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’
fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their
 upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane,
sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls'-eyes, are carefully polished; their
lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes;
and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper;
or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more
sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.


Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp'ry curl), or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round—dare not go back—and yet dare not advance.

One of the most celebrated, and possibly oldest, confectioners was at 15, Cornhill, established during George I’s reign by Mr. Horton. It was taken over by Lucas Birch, who was succeeded by his son Samuel, who was born in 1757 and among other offices, was Lord Mayor in 1815.

15, Cornhill

Traditionally, the Twelfth Cake was a very large fruit cake, iced and decorated. By the nineteenth century it was often garlanded with gilded paper and dressed with figures made out of marzipan, sugar-paste or Plaster of Paris. These could be crowns, coronets, swans, horses or people etc. 

…all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate.
Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions,
milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary,
painted with variegated colours, glitter by ‘excess of light’ from mirrors against the walls
festooned with artificial ‘wonders of Flora.’

Over time, this cake has evolved into what we know today as Christmas Cake. Twelfth Cake was baked with a dried bean and a dried pea in the mixture, one in each half of the cake. On Twelfth Night it was cut into slices and everyone in the household had a slice, no matter how lowly their position. Ladies were served from the left and gentlemen from the right. The man who got the bean became King for the night and the woman or girl who claimed the pea became Queen. Their rule lasted until midnight and it was an excuse for all kinds of jests, foolish commands and silliness. At house parties, sometimes a coin was put in the cake instead of the bean or another alternative was the drawing of tickets or characters (often produced by the confectioners).

Traditional Twelfth Cake

There is no standard recipe for Twelfth Cake. It can be a fruit cake or even a sponge cake (all you need to do is put ‘Twelfth Cake recipes’ into your search engine and many possibilities come up!) I have therefore searched Cookery books of the Regency era for those listed below.

This is possibly the first printed recipe for Twelfth Cake and comes from The Art of Cookery by John Mollard, published in 1802. It is somewhat large!

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yest and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery quotes three recipes for Twelfth Cake, one of which is Morrell’s, above. This is also a massive cake.

Before beginning to mix the cake all the ingredients should be pre-pared, the flour dried and sifted, the currants washed, di-ied, and picked, the nutmegs grated, the spices pounded, the candied fruit cut into thin slices, the almonds bruised with orange-flower or rose water, but not to a paste, the sugar sifted, and the eggs thoroughly whisked, yolks and whites separately. Care should be taken to make the cake and to keep the fruit in a warm place, and, unless the weather is very warm, to whisk the eggs in a pan set in another containing hot water. To make the cake, put two pounds of fresh butter into a large bowl, and beat it with the hand to a smooth cream: then add two pounds of powdered sugar, a large nutmeg grated, and a quarter of an ounce each of powdered cinnamon, powdered mace, powdered ginger, and powdered allspice. Beat the mixture for ten minutes, add gradually twenty eggs, and beat the cake for twenty minutes. Work in two pounds of flour, four pounds of currants, half a pound of bruised almonds, half a pound each of candied orange, candied lemon, and candied citron, and, last of all, a claret-glassful of brandy, and beat the cake lightly between every addition. Line a baking-hoop with doubled paper well buttered, pour in the mixture, and be careful that it does no more than three-parts fill it, that there may be room for the cake to rise. Cover the top with paper, set the tin on an inverted plate in the oven to keep it from burning at the bottom, and bake in a slow but well-heated oven. When it is nearly cold, cover it as smoothly as possible with sugar-icing three-quarters of an inch thick (see Frost or Icing for Cakes). Ornament with fancy articles of any kind, with a high ornament in the centre : these may frequently be hired of the confectioner. In order to ascertain whether the cake is done enough, plunge a bright knife into the centre of it, and if it comes out bright and clear the cake is done. A cake of this description will, if properly made, and kept in a cool dry place, keep for twelve months. If cut too soon it will crumble and fall to pieces. It will be at its best when it has been kept four months. Time to bake, four hours and a half. Probable cost, 12s. for this quantity.

Then this recipe is of great interest to Regency aficionados. It is of rather more modest size. 

Twelfth Cake, Lady Caroline Lamb's. —

 Quarter of a peck of pure flour carefully dried, three pounds of cui-rants, a quarter of a pound of raisins, half a pound of refined sugar, quarter of a pound of sweet and half an ounce of bitter almonds blanched and sliced, two ounces of orange and two ounces of candied lemon-peel, and spices according to taste, mix all thoroughly; then take one pint of cream, and put to it three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter washed first in pure and afterwards in rose-water; place in a gentle heat. Beat up the white and yolks, separately, of six eggs, and the yolks only of six more. Add to them a little rose-water, two table- spoonfuls of cardamom brandy, half a glassful of old Rhenish, hock, or champagne, quarter of a pint of fresh yeast, and a little fine salt. Mix the liquids together, strain them, add the dry materials warm, and mix the whole into a light smooth batter. Place it before a fire for twenty minutes to rise, butter your hoop, and use what flour is necessary to make the cake sufficiently stiff. Set it in the oven with some sheets of brown paper well floured to prevent its burning. In about a couple of hours it will be done. Ice it in the usual manner, and stick any ornaments you choose upon the icing before it is dry. 

In his Book of Christmas of 1888, Thomas Hervey quotes an account from an earlier work, the Cook and Confectioner’s Dictionary, edited by one Nutt. According to Mr. Nutt, the nursery rhyme ‘Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pye,’ who ‘When the pye was opened all began to sing,’ was based on fact. It seems there were ‘two great pies, made of coarse paste and bran, into one of which, after it was baked, live frogs were introduced, and into the other, live birds; which, upon some curious persons lifting up the covers, would jump and fly about the room, causing ‘a surprising and diverting hurly-burly among the guests.’

Thomas Hervey continues to describe Victorian Twelfth Cakes:

What feeble imitations are the castles, ships, and animals that now adorn our Twelfth-night cakes, to the performances of Nutt! How much, every way, inferior are the specimens of art produced, even by the renowned author of the ‘Italian Confectioner,’ the illustrious Jarrin!

On the battlements of the castles of former days were planted ‘kexes,’ or pop-guns, charged with gunpowder, to be fired upon a pastry ship, with ‘masts,’ ropes, we doubt not of spun sugar, ‘sails, flags, and streamers.’ Nor was the naval power of England lost sight of; for the ‘kexes’ of this delicious ship were, also, charged with gunpowder, and, when she was fired upon from the castle, her guns were able to return the salute.

In order to get rid of the smell of the powder, eggshells were prepared, filled with rose water, which guests then threw at each other! Finally, there was ‘a stag of pastry filled with claret…’ ‘…which, when wounded, poured forth its blood, free and sparkling as a ruby, for those whose nerves were delicate and needed the refreshment of a glass of wine.’

How modest in comparison are our celebrations today, but then, the Georgians really knew how to feast and make merry!

 A very merry Twelfth Night to you all!

Images from non-copyright books quoted unless otherwise stated. 

© Heather King

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