Twelfth cake

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • For

    8-12

    people

Appears in

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British Baking, savoury and sweet

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South

By Regula Ysewijn

Published 2020

  • About

From the mid-18th century to the end of the 19th century, Twelfth cakes were very popular, but they had been mentioned in poems and other literature more than a century earlier. The cake was traditionally baked on 5 January for the celebration of Revelation or – as the name suggests – the twelfth night after Christmas.

The cake was decadently decorated with elaborate scenes of feasting, with little people and filigree made of a white glaze, which was shaped into intricately carved wooden moulds. Crowns seem to have been the most popular decoration and are rarely missing from illustrations of the cake. In the British Museum, you can find pictures of gigantic Twelfth cakes that had to be carried by several footmen. In the Illustrated London News of January 1849, an engraving of the Twelfth cake from Queen Victoria appeared. It was an immense cake with an entire company on it, with a violin player and sugar trees.

In Victorian London, people gathered around the Twelfth cake for games. Special playing cards were developed with different characters and everyone had to behave like the character on his or her playing card for the rest of the evening. In his 1648 work, the poet Robert Herrick explained that a bean and a pea were hidden in the Twelfth cake, and those who found them in their piece of cake were crowned to play king or queen.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Twelfth cakes finally merged with the Christmas cake. Nowadays, Twelfth cake is not commercially made and few people remember it.

This recipe is based on the first published recipe for Twelfth cake from John Mollard in 1802. The authentic recipe traditionally makes a very large cake with more than 3 kg (about 7 lb) of flour and 2 kg (about 4½ lb) of currants.

Ingredients

  • 15 g (½ oz) dried yeast
  • 200 ml (7 fl oz) lukewarm milk
  • 450 g (1 lb) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 80 g ( oz) raw (demerara) sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp grated nutmeg
  • 65 g ( oz) butter, at room temperature, cubed
  • 1 egg
  • 300 g (10½ oz) currants
  • apricot jam, for brushing
  • rolled marzipan, for decorating
  • white fondant, for decorating
  • butter, for greasing
  • flour, for dusting

Method

For a round 24 cm (9/½ inch) springform tin

Add the yeast to the lukewarm milk to activate it. Put the flour, sugar and spices in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix to combine, then put the butter on top. Pour half of the yeast mixture over the butter and start mixing. When the mixture is completely combined, add the remaining yeast mixture, along with the egg, and knead for 10 minutes until the mixture has come together in a smooth dough that isn’t too dry. Occasionally scrape the dough off the dough hook and the side of the bowl.

Cover the dough and leave it to rise for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size. Prepare the baking tin.

Add the currants to the dough and briefly knead. Place the dough in the tin and let it rise again, covered, for 1 hour. Preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F).

Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for 2½ hours. If the top browns too quickly, make a tent of foil and place it lightly on the cake to finish cooking. When the cake is cooked when tested with a skewer, take it out of the tin and let it cool for a few hours before decorating.

Brush the entire cake with apricot jam and apply a layer of marzipan, smoothing the surface and covering any holes. Roll out the fondant. Cover the marzipan with another layer of jam, then carefully place the fondant over the cake and use your hands or a fondant scraper to smooth it out. Decorate the cake as you wish.