The merriment and mayhem of the festive season historically came to a head on Twelfth Night. Historical food blogger Sam Bilton looks back at centuries of celebration, and has a go at recreating a traditional Twelfth Night cake at home.
In the beginning there was Saturn…
Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. He was venerated in a celebration called Saturnalia around the time of the winter solstice (21st December). Once the serious business of going to the temple was out of the way, the Romans would have a jolly good knees-up involving feasting and exchanging gifts.
The usual social order was overturned, with masters serving slaves at table. As part of these festivities, someone would be chosen by lot as master of ceremonies or ‘king’ to preside over the celebrations. However ludicrous his commands (such as 'sing naked'), they had to be obeyed by the guests.
The origins of Twelfth Night
The early Christians quickly realised that if they wanted the populace to adopt their new religion, they needed to give them an incentive. Rather than abolishing pagan festivals, the Christian church often rebranded them as their own. So Saturnalia would eventually morph into Christmas, and the 25th of December, previously honoured as ‘the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, was celebrated instead as the birthday of Christ.
Christmas was preceded by a 40 day Advent fast. This would be broken on Christmas Day, when the season’s festivities would begin with a great feast. The celebrations continued in one form or another for a further twelve days, ending with a final feast on ‘Twelfth Night’ – the evening before 6th of January, also known as Epiphany, the day on which the Magi are believed to have visited Jesus..
During this festive period food played an important role. By the medieval era it was common for a celebration bread to be baked, often containing fruit and spices, to be served at the Epiphany or Twelfth Night Feast.
Master of Mayhem
Part of the fun of the Twelfth Night Feast was the appointment of a Lord of Misrule. As in Roman times, he organised the games and entertainments at the final feast. To select the Lord of Misrule, a bean was baked inside a cake.
Whoever received the slice containing the bean was ‘crowned’ the Lord of Misrule, otherwise known as the King of the Bean. Sometimes a pea was also included, and its discoverer would be declared Queen of the Pea. This practice was particularly popular during the early Tudor period. Henry VII had an Abbot of Unreason – another name for the Lord of Misrule – at his festive gatherings.
(Although it's not strictly traditional, I decorated my Twelfth Night cake with a crown to commemorate the King of the Bean. Read on to get the recipe)
Let them eat cake
The popularity of Twelfth Night traditions began to wane after the Reformation, when Epiphany as a religious festival was observed with decreasing enthusiasm. Instead Twelfth Night became a purely secular feast, although the cake endured. By the early nineteenth century the tokens inside the cake had evolved from a bean and pea to silver trinkets such as thimbles or charms.
During the medieval and Tudor periods, the Twelfth Night Cake was leavened with yeast, rather like a fruit-laden brioche. The introduction of cake hoops in the late seventeenth century and the discovery during the early eighteenth century that beaten eggs could be used to raise a cake meant that the fruit breads of earlier times were replaced by a plum cake.
These cakes could be elaborately decorated for feasts with sugar and almond pastes, although elaborately decorated Twelfth Night Cakes weren’t really that popular until the late 18th- and early 19th- centuries.
New festive traditions
As we Brits wholeheartedly embraced ‘new’ Christmas traditions during the reign of Queen Victoria, such as the Christmas Tree and sending Christmas cards, the Twelfth Night Cake was gradually replaced by the Christmas Cake, and its hidden charms sometimes migrated to the Christmas Pudding.
However, the tradition has not been entirely lost. An eighteenth-century actor called Robert Baddeley left a legacy to the Drury Lane Theatre so that actors appearing there on Twelfth Night could still enjoy a traditional cake and toast the production in punch.
Making a cake for Twelfth Night
Strictly speaking you won’t find dedicated recipe for Twelfth Night Cake, as a rich fruit cake is usually served. All you need to do is include a bean (I used a dried butter bean) along with the fruit when you make the cake.
This recipe is from Cakes: Regional & Traditional by Julie Duff (Grub Street).
225g dark muscovado sugar
1 tablespoon black treacle
225g plain flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
4 large eggs
50g chopped mixed peel
50g glacé cherries, halved
50g ground almonds
1 tablespoon brandy
Preheat the oven to 160℃.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy and then beat in the treacle.
Sift the flour, spice and salt into the bowl. Lightly whisk the eggs with a fork and then beat them gently into the butter and sugar mixture, together with the flour. When thoroughly mixed, stir in the fruits, nuts and brandy and then pile into a greased and lined 18cm/7inch round cake tin.
Place in the centre of the oven. Bake for approximately 1½ hours, then reduce the temperature to 120℃ and bake for a further 1 hour or until the cake is well risen, golden brown and firm to the touch. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out cleanly.
Leave the cake to cool in the tin, covered with a clean cloth. Turn out when completely cold.
I've decorated mine with a crown to symbolise the King of the Bean, but if you're feeling creative you could use almond paste/marzipan and sugar icing like a traditional Christmas cake.