The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"

Carolyn Hart

You may not be feeling the urge this year, but this has always been the season to be jolly. From the Saturnalia and Kalends of ancient Rome onwards, Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days—and how dark they seem today—of the winter solstice and often stretched from November to January and beyond.

During the reign of Elizabeth the First it wasn’t unknown to keep the celebrations going from Allhallowtide (November 1) to Candlemas (February 2) when hope in the form of light began to penetrate. Unlike our own noisy preoccupation with Christmas Day, it was Twelfth Night, or Epiphany—the Feast of the Three Kings as they made their journey to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn King of Kings—that was the focus; the culmination of an open house policy that began on December 25 welcoming in friends, relatives and neighbours, servants, and strangers, until the final blowout on January 6.

“So I do really enjoy myself, and understand that if I do not do it now, I shall not hereafter,” as Pepys noted in self-exculpatory mode in his diary after Twelfth Night in 1688. He had drunk too much, eaten too much, stayed up too late, and spent more than he could afford. A century earlier, Sir William Petre of Ingatestone Hall had been having an even better Twelfth Night than Pepys. In her book, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, the culinary writings of  an Elizabethan housewife, Hilary Spurling describes a dinner given by Sir William on January 6 in 1552 at which 100 people consumed between them “16 raised pies, 15 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 . . .”

Despite the astonishing quantities of food, the real focus of these evenings was the Twelfth Night Cake, a spicy fruit concoction into which was baked a bean and a pea symbolising the King and Queen of the Revels. The person who found a token in their slice gained or forfeited  a privilege. Pepys’ cake cost him 20s and was enough for 20 people including gatecrashers but paled into insignificance when compared to the annual Fettiplace cake which was a yeast cake made with “good ale”, 12 1/2 pounds of flour, four pounds of currants, and an ounce and a half of cinnamon and ginger, capable of feeding upwards of 160 guests.

In the late 17th century, the series of tokens secreted in the cake expanded to include cloves for knaves, rags for wanton girls, and so on, and by the 18th century the tokens became a series of characters printed on paper which were cut out, folded and drawn from a hat—vestiges of these customs still survive in the sixpences and threepenny pieces that were sometime put in Christmas puddings.

There are similar traditions found all over Europe: in Spain, the Roscón de Reyes is a ring-shaped cake decorated with candied fruit containing a sorpresa (surprise), a coin or tiny ceramic figure that will bring luck to the finder. It’s a close cousin of Portugal’s Bolo Rei, a cake made with port and candied fruit. The person who finds the bean hidden within must provide next year’s Bolo Rei. Swiss and German Dreikönigskuchen are rich bread wreaths, each concealing an almond which will confer kingship on the finder.  Further afield, in New Orleans, King cakes, brioche loaves iced in purple green and gold, each contain a plastic baby whose finder must give the next Twelfth Night party.

Best known, perhaps, of the Twelfth Night cakes is the French Galette des Rois. This is a round flat cake made with many variations on a theme of flour, sugar, butter and eggs, or with puff pastry filled with frangipane. A bean hidden in the pastry renders the finder into the day’s Lord of the Revels.

The Galette in its puff pastry form has become a welcome antidote to the modern British Twelfth Night which has largely dispensed with revelry in favour of  the gloomy ritual of taking down the Christmas decorations and despatching the tree. In 2021 it might be especially welcome—a delicious distraction from the woes of 2020 and the possibility, pace the appearance of a vaccine, of yet another lockdown currently forecast for January. You can buy a Galette quite easily, or frozen puff pastry makes it simple to construct your own, method  below. The recipe for Elinor Fettiplace’s cake, with modern translation, can be found in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book by Hilary Spurling (Penguin, 1987).

Galette des Rois

400g ready-made puff pastry
100g softened butter
100g caster sugar
1 lightly beaten egg
100g ground almonds
2 tbsp cognac or dark rum
dash of almond essence (optional)

Heat the oven to 200C/fanC180/gas 6.
Divide the puff pastry in half, roll out each piece and cut each piece into a circle.
Put one round on a baking sheet, set aside the other.
Beat together the softened butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg. Stir in the ground almonds and cognac or dark rum and the almond essence if using.
Spoon the mixture over the pastry disc, spreading it evenly. Brush the edges of the pastry with water, then cover with the second piece, pressing the edges to seal. Mark the top of the pastry in a zig-zag pattern, then brush with beaten egg.
Bake for 25-30 mins until crisp and golden. Serve warm or cold.


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The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"