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.
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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
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.