Tag Archives: Christmas

Twelfth Night Cake

 

Upon the table was an immense dish, and in the dish was the biggest Twelfth-cake that the eyes of childhood had ever beheld. It was a positive monster, and whitened sugar of the most approved kind encrusted it all over.

From Little Grub, E H Knatchbull-Hugesson 1874

Twelfth Night, on the fifth day of January, is on the last day of Christmastide and was once the party highlight of the twelve-day long festival. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be the big day where gifts would be exchanged, and folk would make much merriment, very aware of the austere months ahead of them. All of this, including the cake, has moved to Christmas Day, of course.

The focal part of the Twelfth Night side-table was the elaborately-decorated Twelfth cake, essentially a rich fruit cake containing brandy, covered in a layer of rock-hard royal icing, the top groaning under the weight of sugar figures and other intricate sculptures and piping. Inside each Twelfth cake a large dried bean or pea would be baked; on the big day those who discovered them would be proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the day.

Queen Victoria’s 1849 Twelfth cake

Some Twelfth cakes were extremely expensive, and every baker or confectioner in the land worth their salt would produce a breath-taking, awe-inspiring shop window filled with cakes of differing sizes, all covered in wonderful sugar-work. There was huge competition between confectioners to produce the best displays; and no wonder, selling any number of these bespoke cakes meant some real money had been made that winter!

Many people, of all ages and conditions, – young and old, gentle and simple, giddy and thoughtful, – stepped every hour to look through the large plate-glass window, and see the grand show of Twelfth-cakes.

From The Queen of the Twelfth-Cakes, Cuthbert Bede 1857

The Twelfth Night cake began life – like many traditional cakes did – as a yeast-leavened bread, enriched with dried fruit and ale (see also Simnel Cake). Over time, the cakes were enriched further with brandy or rum and sugar, giving it a close texture. Eventually, chemical raising agents were used to give the batter a lift.

Here’s a 1604 recipe from a lady called Elinor Fettiplace:

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, but as much barme [the yeasty froth from the top of fermenting beer barrels] as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cakes with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.

I would love to have a go at this recipe at some point.

Twelfth Night cake has declined in popularity since the invention of the Christmas cake (which, incidentally, is a hybrid of a Twelfth Night Cake and Simnel Cake). Here’s the recipe that I use, which is slightly different to my Christmas cake. Notice that there are no raising agents used – I like the close-texture it gives, if you disagree, add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the flour to give it a little lift.

I don’t decorate my cakes elaborately, preferring as thin a layer of icing as possible, so I use half a batch of royal icing, but if it is your thing, you might want to make a little more!

 

175 g softened salted butter

175 g caster or brown sugar

1 tbs black treacle

3 eggs

175 g plain flour

¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace

400 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, quartered prunes)

75 g candied peel

50 g slivered almonds

60 ml brandy, rum, strong ale (or milk)

1 dried butter bean (optional)

A half-batch of royal icing

 

Line and grease an 8-inch cake tin and preheat your oven to 160°C.

Cream the butter, treacle and sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the eggs one by one before gently stirring in the flour and spices. Once incorporated, mix in the fruits, peel and nuts and stir in the booze (or milk).

Pour into the cake tin, pop in the king/queen bean, level off the top and bake for an hour. Cool in the tin.

Decorate the cake with the royal icing, being as elaborate as you like.

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Smoking Bishop

Fine oranges well roasted with sugar and wine in a cup, they’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolk sup.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

I spent part of the week in London this week and made sure I had a wander around the Tower Bridge area, my favourite part of the great city. The tiny roads are still so very evocative of Dickens with many of the street names and yards appearing in his writings. Much of Little Dorrit takes place in this area of London, but it was such a bitingly-cold day that it put me more in mind of the winter scenes described in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.

At the very end of the story, when it dawns upon the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s nice to be nice, he offers his long-suffering clerk a well-deserved pay rise and some delicious steaming-hot smoking bishop:

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

The Christmas Bowl

The Christmas Bowl:

Original illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a heady hot boozy snifter and smoking bishop is the best of all, in my opinion. Everyone is sick of mulled wine these days – or at least I am – this is the way to go; a marvellous mixture of port, oranges and spices.

The drink is smoking because the oranges – preferably bitter Seville oranges – are roasted until blackened. The drink is a bishop because it is one of several drinks once known as ‘ecclesiasticals’; drinks named after various orders within the Catholic church. Indeed, if you substitute the port for claret, you have a smoking cardinal; better still, use champagne and you’ve got yourself a smoking pope! I have never tried these, but I think I might give smoking pope a go but using Prosecco instead. There was a spate of these somewhat anti-Catholic snifters during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was just a wry dig, compared to what had happened in the past (e.g. this post). If you look up the recipe for a smoking bishop in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, inset is an illustration of a mitre-shaped punch bowl into which it should be served!

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A mitre-shaped punchbowl, from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845

Many port drinks were created around this time too because France and England were tied into an out-of-control tit-for-tat game with tariffs for exports between the two countries, making French wine – the preferred drink at the time – too expensive for most people, and so eyes moved to Spain and it was soon Cheerio! Chateau Neuf de Pape and Hello! lovely port wine.

One of the reasons I don’t always like mulled wine is that it can be a little heavy on the spices. A smoking bishop uses fewer spices, in fact my recipe uses only one: cloves. The only other aromatics being the oils released from the burnt bitter orange rinds. Aside from that, just a little water and some dark brown sugar are added to taste.

It’s a delicious and easy drink to make, and you will never go back to mulled red wine again once you’ve tried it, so please give it a go; you won’t be disappointed!

Smoking bishop can be made ahead of time, strained, and reheated with great success.

 

One 750 ml bottle of port

3 oranges (Seville, if possible)

8 cloves

250ml water

Dark brown sugar to taste

 

Place the oranges on a tray and bake at 200°C for around 25 minutes until they have started to blacken and give off their delicious burnt aroma. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before slicing them up.

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Next, pour the full bottle of port into a saucepan (very satisfying to do) along with the oranges and any orange juicy bits, as well as the cloves and water.

Bring to a bare simmer – don’t let it boil! – and let it gently tick away at a scalding temperature (around 80°C) for around 20 minutes.

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Add sugar to taste – if the oranges are very bitter and black, you might need quite a bit. If you don’t want bits of orange pulp and clove floating about in the drink, strain into a clean pan before adding the sugar.

If, in the unlikely event, you do not have a mitre-shaped punch bowl, you can simply ladle straight from the saucepan into punch glasses or small mugs.

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Mulled Cider

Merry Christmas!

Everyone seems to be drinking mulled cider rather than mulled wine this year so I thought I’d stick my oar in and give you my recipe for it (if you prefer mulled wine click this link for my recipe for that from last year). You may have been expecting a massive over-the-top Christmas feast post this time of year; well, I can only apologise as this is all I can muster. I promise to do something better next year…

Mulled cider has been drunk during the winter festivities at least as long as mulled wine and it is perhaps the descendant of a much older drink called wassail made from roasted apples that was knocked back by many in the south-west of England. Wassail night involves a most bizarre ritual that requires a man blacking himself up as revellers hang pieces of dry toast onto twigs. I shall leave that hanging there. It deserves its very own post – perhaps it shall be next year’s Christmas tipple recipe.

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The recipe is pretty straight-forward – you need a good dry cider, a little sweetener and a little fortification of alcohol in the form of dark rum. Then it’s the usual spices that one would expect: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. It’s very delicious and much nicer than mulled wine I think. The amounts given below are for mere guidance as it is all to taste really:

1 litre (1 ¾ pints) dry cider

2 cox’s apples, sliced

2 clementines, sliced

2 sticks of cinnamon

6 allspice berries

4 cloves

small piece of nutmeg

2 to 4 tbs dark rum

2 or 3 tbs soft dark brown sugar

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Place the cider, fruit and spices in a saucepan and heat gently so that all the flavours can infuse into the cider for 5 to 10 minutes– on no account let it boil, you don’t want to cook the alcohol away. Next, add the rum and sugar to taste and serve!

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Jane Grigson’s Orange Mincemeat

It’s just occurred to me that I haven’t put on a Christmas recipe and it is only just over two weeks until the special day. This month has flown by at a scarily quick pace.

Luckily two weeks is just enough time to make this delicious orange flavoured mincemeat. Last year I gave you Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but this one comes from the wonderful Jane Grigson. It is very moist and because of the brandy, orange juice and orange liqueur. It is also vegetarian if you want it to be; the suet can be the vegetable-based sort, or you can leave it out altogether. Give it a go.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

It is extremely easy to make: there is no cooking required so all you need to be able to do is chop, grate, mix and weigh. When you pot the mincemeat, it is very important you sterilise your jars. To do this first wash them in soapy water, then rinse and allow them to dry. Place the jars on a tray, with their lids sat beside them, facing upwards and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at around 130⁰C. Let them cool a little before potting. If this seems a lot to make in one go, you can easily reduce the amounts as you see fit.

Click here for the recipe I use for making mince pies.

 

Ingredients

250 g (8 oz) chopped candied peel

1 kg (2 lb) peeled, cored and grated apples

500 g (1 lb) suet (fresh or packed is fine, but fresh is best)

500 g (1 lb) currants

500 g (1 lb) raisins

500 g (1 lb) sultanas

500 g (1 lb) soft dark brown sugar

1 freshly grated nutmeg

125 g (4 oz) slivered almonds

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

4 tbs brandy

6-8 tbs orange liqueur

 

Mix all the ingredients together in a huge mixing bowl, then pot into sterilised jars. Store somewhere dark and cool, but not the fridge! Leave the mincemeat to mature for at least together before using it.

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Mulled Wine

There is nothing better to warm your cockles during Christmastime than a bit of mulled wine. If you have never tried it or heard of it, then you are certainly missing out on something. Mulled wine is essentially hot, sweetened red wine made aromatic with the addition of citrus fruits and warming spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s history goes right back to the Ancient Greeks.

Before mulled wine was the drink hippocras, which was supposedly invented by the Greek scientist and Father of Medicine, Hippocrates. The idea being that it was something of a tonic. The wine was either red or white and not necessarily hot either, but it was spiced and sweetened with honey. In Britain, the drink was very popular and there are several recipes for it. Here’s one from The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson (1596):

To make Hypocrace

Take a gallon of white wine, sugar two pounds, of cinnamon, ginger, long pepper, mace not bruised galingall [sic]…and cloves not bruised. You must bruise every kind of spice a little and put them in an earthen pot all day. And then cast them through your bags two times or more as you see cause. And so drink it.

Not heating it up obviously meant you had plan a little ahead if you wanted to have a few goblets of hippocras at your Tudor feast.

By the seventeenth century, mulled wine recipes start to appear such as this eighteenth century recipe from Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper:

Grate half a nutmeg into a pint of wine and sweeten it to your taste with loaf sugar. Set it over the fire and when it boils take it off to cool. Beat the yolks of four eggs exceedingly well, add to them a little cold wine, then mix them carefully with your hot wine a little at a time. Then pour it backwards and forwards several times until it looks fine and bright. The set it on the fire and heat it a little at a time for several times till it is quite hot and pretty thick, and pour it backwards and forwards several times. Then send it in chocolate cups and serve it with dry toast cut in long narrow pieces.

It is strange that the Tudor recipe actually seems more like modern mulled wine that the newer one.

Well here is my recipe for mulled wine – it is difficult to add quantities as you add most things to taste. It is also quite difficult to give an official list of ingredients; you can add any warm spice you like really (I expect a blade of mace would be an excellent addition, though I have never tried it), so this recipe is more a guideline than anything.

Ingredients

2 bottles of red wine, good but not great

¼ pint of brandy

½ pint of water

2 oranges, sliced

1 lemon, sliced

2 sticks of cinnamon

½ a nutmeg broken into several pieces

5 cloves

at least 4 tablespoons sugar

In a large saucepan, add all the ingredients and slowly heat the wine, stirring every now and again to dissolve the sugar and get the flavours dispersed.

It is important not to let the mulled wine boil as the alcohol will evaporate and we don’t want that. Taste, and add more brandy, sugar or water if you think it needs it. Keep the mulled wine on the lowest heat possible to keep warm and ladle into mugs or glasses.

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To make mince pies…

A few posts ago I gave the recipe for Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat, so I thought it only right to give a little instruction in making mince pies. I have to tell you that it is really worth the trouble of making your own mincemeat and mince pies – any bought ones are incomparable and always too sweet. The secret to an excellent mince pie is two-fold: you need homemade mincemeat and you need shortcrust pastry that is made with half butter and half lard. many people recoil in horror these days at thought of using lard, but it isn’t that bad really, at least not in small doses.

A recipe by Roger Twysden from the times of Charles I (c. 1640) says that larger Christmas pies were also made using a mixture made of meat, sugar, dried fruit and spices. He then says: “put them in coffins or pyes, and bake them”. The word coffin was used to describe the pastry-shell of pies. The reason they were called coffins is because, in earlier times, the pastry simply served as a casing intowhich the meat could be cooked; the pastry itself actually being inedible. They weren’t actually coffin-shaped, except for the Christmas Pie as Charles Dickens, writing in 1877, tells us: ‘ The coffin shape…is not now familiar to us. There is good reason to believe that, in old times, the form was symbolic of the manger at Bethlehem; and that Christmas Pie, whether mince or not, had religious as well as a gastronomic association with this particular season.’

 

For more typical mince pies, they are based upon Jane Grigson’s instructions from English Food, and they are excellent.

Roll out your pastry and use cutters to line…tart tins [I actually use muffin tins, cutting a large circle for the base, and a smaller one for the top]. Add…[a dessertspoon] of the mincemeat – not too much though the suet and sugar expands quite alot. Use some beaten egg to glue on lids of pastry, pinching as you go. Lastly brush the top with more egg, make a little cross in the top of the pie so steam can escape and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake at 220⁰C (425⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes. Eat warm or cold. If you are feeling extra-Christmassy and if your stomach can take it, add a blob of brand or rum butter. Personally I go for a blob of lightly whipped cream or even some custard if any is to hand [and I concur!].

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Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use these days. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour. You can add extra things to the mixture if you like, such as the grated zest of an orange, or a couple of teaspoons of orange flower water or rose water.

 

140 g icing sugar

90 g caster sugar

220 g ground almonds

1 beaten egg

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar and almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy. Wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for a few hours.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake.

Next, turn it upside down and pop it on a cake base or plate. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

 

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out a little over half of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. The greaseproof paper makes it easier to roll out, but you can use an icing sugar dusted worktop instead. Use the cake tin as a template and cut a circle.

Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper.

Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar appropriately. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

500g icing sugar, sieved

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Add icing sugar to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. The icing can be used straight away.

 

Spread the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife to smooth it out. Dipping the knife in very hot water is a good way of getting the icing super-smooth, but I like it a bit more rough-and-ready. You can reserve some of the icing for piping of course, but that has never really been my thing – I should have a go one time though!

A simple and effective way of decorating the cake is to use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for two or three days to set hard.

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