Twelfth Night cakes

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

Twelfth Night cakes celebrate Epiphany, the bringing of gifts by the Magi to the Christ child, twelve days after his birth. These cakes are most popular in Roman Catholic countries, especially France and Spain, although England, Germany, Switzerland, and Greece all have their own versions.

To mark the winter solstice, pagans named a king for a single day. Ancient Romans baked a bean into pastry to celebrate their version of 21 December, Saturnalia. Both traditions eventually merged with the Christian holiday, featuring a special cake whose hidden bean designates a king for a day. The medieval French called this cake gastel a feve orroriz (now the galette or gâteau des rois). The Spanish call it roscón de reyes; the Portuguese, bolo rei; the southern Germans and Swiss, Dreikönigskuchen; the Greeks, vasilopita; and the English, King Cake. Whoever finds the hidden token in their slice is named king for the day, a figure representing the Magi who is granted specific rights and responsibilities and sometimes gets to wear a paper crown—although, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the cake was briefly called a galette de l’égalité.