Twelfth Night Cakes

Twelfth Cakes, circa 1800 (left) from a manuscript recipe book, and James Jenks' 1768 recipe (right).
Twelfth Cakes, circa 1800 (left) from a manuscript recipe book, and James Jenks’ 1768 recipe (right).

The biggest party of the festive season used to be the evening of January 5th, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Christmas Day being the first day), at which the Twelfth Night Cake made its appearance. Baked into the cake were a dried bean and dried pea, and when the cake was sliced and distributed amongst guests whoever discovered these in their slices were declared the King (bean) and Queen (pea) of the festivities. Quite how they managed to contrive that the correct gender found the appropriate bean/pea is not clear – unless two cakes were always served.

In times past, my home county of Herefordshire, being a very agricultural region, also has several rural traditions.

  • The Lighting the Twelfth Night Bonfires (twelve small fires in a circle and one larger one in the middle) in a wheat field and toasting the coming season with cider.
  • Wassailing the apple trees: Forming a procession to the apple orchard and arranging pieces of toast from the wassail bowl  (or cake, if one had been baked) in the branches and pouring the contents of the wassail bowl onto the roots of the tree, to encourage a good apple harvest.
  • Baking a cake with a hole in the middle and on Twelfth Night, placing it on the horns of a cow in the byre. The cow was then tickled until he tossed his head. If the cake was thrown backwards, it belonged to the mistress/dairymaid, and if forwards, to the bailiff/cowherd.

The Twelfth Night Cake was an extremely popular celebratory treat for centuries, but its popularity declined from the middle of the nineteenth century. A lot of people on the internet point the finger of blame at Queen Victoria, even going so far as to accuse her of banning the festivities circa 1860-1870. No evidence is offered to support this argument, and indeed I have been unable to find any myself, but if I missed something, do please get in touch and let me know.

Despite its popularity, recipes for Twelfth Cake are relatively few. Indeed, it has long been claimed that John Mollard’s 1801 recipe is the earliest one in print. Well, I do love a challenge, and the two recipes I have for you here do indeed date from the eighteenth century, albeit by a rather oblique route.

The first can be found in James Jenks’ The Complete Cook (1768).

As can be seen above, the recipe is actually called A Rich Cake, but has the helpful note “This is called a twelfth cake at London” underneath.

The second recipe I found in a handwritten manuscript at the Welcome Collection.

Twelfth Cake recipe from MS1074, Wellcome Collection, circa 1800

I appreciate that with an estimated date of 1800, this recipe is only just squeaking in to the 18th century, but I would argue, that it was unlikely to have been invented at the time of it’s entry into the manuscript, and thus has origins firmly in the preceding decades.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Twelfth Cakes are party cakes. They are made for celebrations, to be shared with numerous people, and consequently the quantities of both of these recipes are huge. I managed to scale them down considerably and chose to bake them in mini loaf/cake tins for the photo at the top of this page. This way, everyone can have their own miniature Twelfth Cake, and should you wish to annoint a King and Queen of the Revels, you can solve the tricky problem of ensuring the recipients are of the correct gender by adding the bean and the pea to cakes of different shapes.

James Jenks’ recipe is very heavily fruited and spiced and, whilst being a stickler for accurate scaling of recipes, I have had to reduce the proportion of both mace and clove in the recipe, as the original quantities of these spices tended to clonk you around the head flavourwise, and overpower the rest of the ingredients. The candied peel, nuts and alcohol all provide lots of interest and topped with a billowy royal icing, although both recipes are delicious, they are my personal favourite of the two. If this sparks your interest, Jenks’ book includes a further three rich cakes which could also be served as Twelfth Cakes.

The manuscript recipe is a paler and much milder affair. If lots of dried fruit and spice is not your idea of an enjoyable mouthful, then this might be the Twelfth Cake for you. Think of this as a sedate morning-coffee type of cake, as opposed to the full-on party-in-the-mouth that is James Jenks’ offering.

I chose to bake these in silicone moulds, as this protects the sides of the cake and prevents burning of the fruit. Metal tins might need a little less baking.

James Jenks Twelfth Cakes, 1768

Makes 8 small cakes

100g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
2 large eggs – separated
2 tsp brandy
2 tsp cream sherry
1½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground mace
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
70g plain flour
50g chopped almonds
115g currants
20g candied orange peel, sliced very thin
20g candied lemon peel, sliced very thin
20g candied citron peel, sliced very thin

  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease and line your chosen baking tins with parchment.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
  • Whisk in the egg yolks, brandy and sherry.
  • Sift together the flour and spices and fold into the mixture.
  • Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the batter, 1/3 at a time.
  • Fold through the fruit and nuts.
  • Spoon into the moulds. A standard ice-cream scoop is helpful here.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the tins/moulds around and bake for a further 10 minutes for a total of 25 minutes.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Icing
100g icing sugar
25g egg-white

  • Heat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Whisk the sugar and egg-white together for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is thickened.
  • Spread as liked on your Twelfth Cakes.
  • Set the cakes into the oven and turn off the heat.
  • Remove after 15 minutes, when the icing has set.
  • Set aside to cool.

Twelfth Cakes circa 1800

Makes 8-10 small cakes

100g salt butter
115g  powdered sugar
2 tsp brandy
3 large eggs
1 tsp ground cinnamon
170g plain flour
170g currants

  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease and line your chosen baking tins with parchment.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
  • Whisk in the eggs, one by one.
  • Add the brandy.
  • Sift together the flour and cinnamon and fold into the mixture.
  • Fold through the fruit and nuts.
  • Spoon into the moulds. A standard ice-cream scoop is helpful here.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the tins around and bake for a further 10 minutes for a total of 25 minutes.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Icing
100g icing sugar
25g egg-white

  • Heat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Whisk the sugar and egg-white together for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is thickened.
  • Spread as liked on your Twelfth Cakes.
  • Set the cakes into the oven and turn off the heat.
  • Remove after 15 minutes, when the icing has set.
  • Set aside to cool.

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