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Twelfth Cake


The Twelfth Night of Christmas is the 5th January (or 6th by some reckonings), traditionally the last day of the festive season, and its night formerly a time for grand balls and vigorous get-togethers. A Twelfth Cake can be any sort of large, sweet, decorated cake, or may be individual cakes handed out to each guest at the Twelfth Night revels.

A magnificent modern 12th Night Cake
Image: Unknown

Strong tradition has it that the cake carry tokens (such a dried bean or pea, or a small coin, or a card flag on a stick), whoever gets it in their slice being proclaimed the King or Queen of the revels, or designated some official to the Revel Court, such as 'Chancellor'. John Brand's 'Observations on popular antiquities', published in Newcastle in 1777 says; "I did not return till I had been present at drawing King and Queen, and eaten a Slice of the Twelfth Cake."

Drawing the Twelfth Cake

Twelfth Cakes were often made with florid decoration, though there is no definitive form. George Meredith's Beauchampís career of 1876 refers to; "A ricketty ornament like that you see on a confectioner's twelfth-cake." The Civil engineer & architect's journal of 1848 tells that; " The house at Kenwood is quite in the twelfth-cake style - patched all over with panels of filagree work." This tradition is maintained at London's Drury Lane Theatre, where a magnificent Twelfth Cake is prepared every year with money from a 1794 bequest by the actor Robert Baddeley.

Mary Berry's Twelfth Night cake
Image: www.bbc.co.uk

Although Twelfth Cake appears ancient, receipts under this name do not appear until Mollard 1802, Kitchiner 1845 and Cassell 1883.

Original Receipt in 'The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined' By John Mollard (Mollard 1802)

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the center, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron, When the sponge is risen mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

Twelfth Night character cards, c1890

The 1838 'The Every-day book and Table book' of William Hone has: "Twelfth day is now only commemorated by the custom of choosing king and queen. "I went", says a correspondent in the Universal Magazine for 1774, "to a friend's house in the country to partake of some of those innocent pleasures that constitute a merry Christmas. I did not return till I had been present at drawing king and queen and eaten a slice of the Twelfth cake made by the fair hands of my good friend's consort. After tea yesterday a noble cake was produced and two bowls containing the fortunate chances for the different sexes. Our host filled up the tickets the whole company except the king and queen were to be ministers of state maids of honour or ladies of the bed chamber. Our kind host and hostess whether by design or accident became king and queen. According to Twelfth day law each party is to support their character till midnight."

Ally Sloper's Twelfth Night
from the comic, 'Ally Sloper's Half Holiday', c1888

For other Twefth Night traditions, see:
Lamb's Wool, or Lamasool
Norfolk Plough Pudding
Scouse or Lobscouse



Queen Victoria's Twelfth Cake
from Illustrated London News, January 1849

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