Melanie McDonagh

It’s time to tuck into Twelfth cake

This week we get to Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, when the wise men finally make it to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Properly, the feast starts the night before, so Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th, which in some parts of Europe is the climax of the Christmas season.

And, as with every good thing, it’s an occasion for cake – king cake to be precise. There are several variants from different parts of Europe. The best-known here is the galette des rois, which features in French patisseries: a lovely almond paste encased in puff pastry, and, in shops, surmounted with a cardboard golden crown for whoever gets the bean on the inside. I make it in a version by Joël Robuchon with slices of pineapple. Delicious. 

In Spain, where Epiphany is a big deal, the cake is made of a soft yeasted dough and shaped into an oval, decorated with candied or crystallised fruit, with a bean or figurine of baby Jesus on the inside. 

But it’s the English variant – known as Twelfth cake – that’s worth considering. It started as a rich yeasted fruit dough cake in the 16th century and in Samuel Pepys’s day it was an essential element of the Twelfth Night celebrations. In one half would be hidden a dried bean, in the other a dried pea, and whichever man got the bean and whichever lady the pea were king and queen of the night, a reminder of the old feast of Misrule that used to characterise the medieval festivities. For the feast of 1659-60 Pepys wrote: ‘To my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mother, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr.

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