A History of Twelfth Night Cake
Do you recollect whether the Manydown family sent about their wedding cake? Mrs. Dundas has set her heart upon having a piece from her friend Catherine,
and Martha, who knows what importance she attaches to this sort of thing, is anxious for the sake of both that there should not be a disappointment.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 13, 1808
Plum cake, (a misnomer, since no actual plums were used) was the highlight of special occasions during the Georgian and Regency Eras. Often served at weddings, it was also the traditional cake served during the Christmas season. This cake, though, was not a Christmas Cake, but a Twelfth Night Cake, and differed from its matrimonial cousin by the inclusion of a dried bean and sometimes a dried pea baked into the batter.
The Twelfth Night cake was made with dried fruits in season and spices. According to Maria Hubert, author of Jane Austen’s Christmas, “These represented the exotic spices of the East, and the gifts of the Wise Men . Such things were first brought to Europe and Britain particularly, by the Crusaders coming back from the wars in the Holy Land in the 12th century…Twelfth night is on the 5th January, and has been for centuries the traditional last day of the Christmas season. It was a time for having a great feast, and the cake was an essential part of the festivities.
In Great Houses, into the cake was baked a dried Bean and a Pea; one in one half and the other in the other half. The cake was decorated with sugar, like our icing, but not so dense, and ornamentation. As the visitors arrived, they were given a piece of the cake, ladies from the left, gentlemen from the right side. Whoever got the bean became King of the Revels for the night, and everyone had to do as he said. The lady was his Queen for the evening.
In smaller homes, the cake was a simple fruitcake, with a bean in it, which was given to guests during the twelve days of Christmas. Whoever got the bean was supposed to be a kind of guardian angel for that family for the year, so it was an important task, and usually, it was arranged that a senior member of the family would get the bean!
In Britain the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the priest and his entourage who would visit on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish. This custom died out after the Reformation in the late 16th century, but was revived at the end of the 17th century, and became very much part of the Twelfth night partying again. It is recorded that in royal households, the cakes became extravagantly large, and the guests divided into two sides could have a battle with models on the cake! One battle was a sea battle, and there were miniature water canon on the cake which really worked!”*
Prior to the Victorian Era, recipes specifically for Twelfth Night Cakes are hard to find. Once the 1860’s rolled around, however, it is easy to find numerous recipes for “Rich Pound Cakes, Twelfth, Or Bride Cakes” and it seems that there is very little difference in these cakes, aside from the addition of the bean and the decoration (Early Wedding cakes were plainly frosted, albeit with two layers of icing.) Of course, with the prevalence of weddings during the Christmas season (George and Martha Washington were married on 12th Night, proper) the cake very well could have served dual purpose.
Sadly for the Twelfth Night Cake, in the 1870’s, Queen Victoria outlawed the celebration of Twelfth Night as a day of reveling, fearing that celebrations had become too riotous and out of control. Consequently, the cake became known as a Christmas Cake, and can still be found, sans bean, at holiday celebrations around the world.
The Bride Cake recipe from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 Experienced English Housekeeper is the first recorded wedding cake recipe. Previously fruit, pound or “Great” cake recipes would have been used. This cake, suitable for Twelfth Night, as well, was served not only at the wedding breakfast, but also shared with the household servants and sent in pieces to friends and relatives who had not attended the ceremony. Other period “great cake” recipes can be found here.
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