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Christmas Cake - but NOT for Christmas!

In the 16th century, the end of the twelve days of Christmas (aptly named the Twelfth Night) was often a greater celebration than that of Christmas Day itself. To celebrate, people would throw enormous feasts. Discover a recipe for the popular Twelfth Night cake used four hundred years ago.

Nic Fulcher
Twelfth Night First Folio
Twelfth Night, First Folio, 1623

In Elizabethan England, the period between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night (6th January), the tradition was to keep open house for everybody regardless of social standing. It was not uncommon for many of the great houses up and down the country having to feed anything from fifty people upwards twice daily, every day for 12 days.

Unlike today, December 25th was a minor feast for the household when compared with Twelfth Night itself. Sir William Petre of Ingatestone Hall in Essex sat down to dinner on January 6, 1552 with over a hundred guests, who consumed between them sixteen raised meat pies, fifteen joints of beef, four of veal, three of pork – including a whole suckling pig – three geese, a brace each of partridge, teal, capons and coneys, a woodcock, and one dozen larks, with a whole sheep and numerous dishes of salads, vegetables, and desserts. Entertaining on this scale was quite normal and remained so until well into the 16th century. Cookery and household management books from the time show that a good part of each summer and autumn was given over to creating sufficient stores of ‘banqueting stuff’ to supply the needs of the festive season.

The central food element of the event was a specially baked, spicy fruit cake containing a dried bean and a pea for the King and Queen of the Revels. A century later, Samuel Pepys records the making of his Twelfth Night cake, the ingredients of which cost him nearly 20 shillings, which cut up into twenty slices, including gate-crashers.

The difference in scale over the century is evident, especially when you consider the following recipe taken from Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, dated 1604, produces a cake that would cut up into about one hundred and sixty slices!

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, on ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, put as much barme as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, all saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, them make a posset with it, & temper the Cake with the posset drinkl, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.

A peck is a ¼ of a bushel, or 12½ pounds of flour – so unless you are expecting about 150 people for Twelfth Night, reduce all of the quantities by eight:

Mix 1 lb 10 oz plain flour with ½lb currants, 2 level teaspoons of cinnamon and 1 of ground ginger, a generous grating of nutmeg and 4 ground cloves. Make the posset by warming equal amounts of milk and ale to make ¾pint, with 2 oz butter and 1 rounded teaspoon light brown sugar. Dissolve 1 oz fresh yeast, or ½ oz dried – the barme – in a cupful of the warm posset, add this back to the liquid mixture and then add gradually to the dry ingredients until it comes together into a firm, but pliable dough. Knead until it becomes springy to the touch. Place in a bowl with a cloth to cover it for an hour or so until it has doubled in size. Knock the dough down and knead again. Divide the mixture in half and place into 2 well greased loaf tins – Lady Elinor would have cast her cake onto the floor of her bread oven. Leave for a further 40 minutes or so to rise again and bake in a hot oven, 200°C, for 25 to 30 minutes. Turn out whilst still hot and glaze with a mixture of rosewater and icing sugar.

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