January 6 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and according to the calendar of the Christian Church it is the Feast of the Epiphany (or Three Kings Day, or the Day of the Magi) – the day which commemorates the visit of the Three Kings to the infant Jesus. On a secular note it is the traditional end of the Christmas season – the day to put unwanted gifts into the furthest reaches of the highest cupboard and the ham bone in the freezer ready for winter soup, and to take down the tree and the decorations.
There are of course a number of eating traditions for the day. The tradition of a special cake on this day (the King Cake) has been maintained in Europe, but seems to have fizzled in England, where it used to be called Twelfth Cake. As with so many celebrations, the traditions of Twelfth Day are the result of the grafting of the rules and requirements of the Church onto the ancient pagan rituals that the newly-converted were reluctant to abandon, precisely because they were associated with so much fun and feasting.
It is traditional for a small item such as a bean or coin to be hidden in the King Cake – a tradition that has its roots in ancient fertility rites. The influence of the Church caused the bean to be substituted with a small doll to represent the baby Jesus, but the outcome was the same – whoever found the object in their slice of cake became King or Queen for the day, and was entitled to lord it over everyone else. Becoming King or Queen for the day in some places was an expensive honour, as it meant being responsible for paying for the drinks, or for hosting the festivities of Candlemas on February 2.
A variation of the tradition in the English county of Gloucestershire was that the cake was made in the shape of a ring which was placed over the horn of the best ox in the herd. The ox was then teased or provoked until it tossed its head and threw off the ring of bread. Whoever was nearest to the tossed bread was the ‘winner’ for the day.
A tradition associated with the religious aspect of the day is that the cake is cut into one more piece than there are guests, the extra piece being ‘for God’, and is given to the first poor person to come to the house.
There are many variations of Twelfth Day cakes. In France the galettes des rois are flattish discs made from puff pastry or brioche dough, usually with a frangipane or a fruit conserve. In Mexico the Rosca de Reyes is wreath-like and decorated with colourful dried fruit. In some parts of Greece the Vasilopita is associated not just with New Year but also with Epiphany. An English Victorian speciality at this time of year was not a cake, but an Epiphany Tart.
Until the nineteenth century had been underway for a few decades, leavening agents such as baking powder were not available, and ‘cakes’ were sweet bread dough enriched with dried fruit. Fruit cakes – because of their extravagant ingredients and their good keeping qualities - are traditional at most of our big celebrations. It seems that no-one is equivocal about fruit cake – people either love it or hate it. There is a story perpetrated by fruit-cake haters that says there were originally four wise men bearing gifts who visited the infant Jesus – but the fourth one was refused when it was found that his gift was a fruit cake!
The following recipe for Twelfth Cake, from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (circa 1870’s) is named for Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), the aristocratic novelist and lover of the poet Lord Byron who described her as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” I have no idea why it is named in her honour, as it is highly unlikely that a woman of her class ever set foot in the kitchen. There is no mention of a bean or trinket being included in the cake – perhaps it was ‘understood.’
Twelfth Cake, Lady Caroline Lamb’s.
Quarter of a peck of pure flour carefully dried, three pounds of currants, a quarter of a pound of raisins, half a pound of refined sugar, quarter of a pound of sweet and half and ounce of bitter almonds blanched and sliced, 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 in pure and afterwards in rose-water; place in a gentle heat. Beat up the whites 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.
There is a description of an Epiphany Tart, and instructions for another nineteenth century Twelfth Cake in a previous post here.
Quotation for the Day.
Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.