Epiphany Cake

Listen to my interview on Epiphany cake on BBC Cambridgeshire here (at 2.44 onwards). 

Today (6 January) is the Christian feast day of Epiphany, which in the Western Church celebrates the visit of the three Magi (or kings) to the baby Jesus. Traditionally, the eve of the holy day, Twelfth Night, marks the end – and the climax – of the twelve days of feasting and revelry that began with Christmas day.

The wassail bowl, containing a spiced ale or cider drink, would have been passed around at the end of the Twelfth Night banquet as part of the games of the evening, or filled by generous neighbours who answered the door to ‘wassailers’. Yet, from the medieval period onwards, the star of the show was the Twelfth Night cake, otherwise known as the Epiphany cake or King’s Cake. The idea was that whoever found the bean, which had been hidden in the cake, was crowned mock-King for the duration of the festivities, in mirror of the Biblical story associated with the holy day. [1]

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‘Twelfth Night’, depicting a huge Epiphany Cake, engraved by Robert Seymour in Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas (1836).

Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem, describes a slightly different tradition, in which a pea was also hidden, this time for the mock-Queen:

‘Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.'[2]

Later, the bean or pea might be replaced with a trinket or coin.

Not until the late eighteenth century did recipes appear specifically for Twelfth Night cakes, although it is clear that before this they were rich spiced fruit bread cakes (much the same as ‘Bride Cakes’). As well as spices, they were usually baked with candied fruits (sweetmeats), and alcohol.

I’ve decided to try the earliest known printed recipe specifically for ‘Twelfth Cakes’, taken from John Mollard’s 1807 The Art of Cookery (first published 1803).[3] Here’s a modernised and adapted version (these cakes are huge, so I’ve roughly quartered the original amount!):

Ingredients:

  • 600g flour
  • 140g sifted cane sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dried yeast (risen with roughly 1/4 pint water and warm milk)
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 400g currants
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 tablespoon of clove, mace and nutmeg
  • Candied lemon peel to taste

Method:

  • Make a well in the middle of the flour, and add the sugar, and the yeast mixture
  • Chop the butter into small pieces and work into the flour
  • Slowly mix the other ingredients together, adding further warm milk if needed
  • Once you have a moist dough let it rise for 2 hours
  • *Add in a hidden bean, coin, or toy figure of your choice!*
  • Thoroughly butter the cake tins and add the mixture
  • Bake in oven for 30 minutes at 200 degree c (fan), then lower to 160 for a further 30 minutes or until baked-through
  • Once cooled, you can decorate it with icing (Mollard recommends a red colour), and sugar paste designs.

I am yet to see a Twelfth Night cake in the shops today… so what happened to them?? As the importance of the Twelfth Night festivities declined in the Victorian period in accordance with the greater emphasis placed on Christmas, the Twelfth Night cake slowly merged with that of the Christmas cake. This is why we might put a coin in our Christmas pudding.

The ‘Twelfth Cake’ tradition continues elsewhere across the Christian world. In France, the Galette des Rois is a flat almond cake, upon which a paper crown might be placed. The Roscón in Spain refers to the ring-shape of the cake, which is then filled with cream or chocolate and bejewelled with candied fruits. Further afield in Mexico, the King Cake might contain a little figure of the baby Jesus, whoever finding it becoming the ‘godparent’ of Jesus for the year.

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Photographs of a Roscón de Reyes cake, taken today by my sister-in-law, who lives in Madrid, where the culinary tradition still flourishes.

 

[1] See Matthew 2:1 -12.

[2] Robert Herrick, ‘Twelfe night, or King and Queene’, Hesperides (1648), pp. 376-7.

[3] Original recipe: John Mollard, The Art of Cooking Made Easy and Refined (1807), pp. 190-1.