A Twelfth Night Cake for Candlemas thru' February and How They Pinched Your Christmas

Strewn with Fresh Violets for the Start of Spring
Before the invention of the printing press we had architecture to tell us the stories of our past. Victor Hugo, in his novel Notre Dame de Paris, wrote eloquently of these 'stone books' but he was perhaps neither a gardener nor a cook. To my mind, there is nothing which tells us more about the daily life of our forebears than the how and what of their food. The recipes they have bequeathed us, lie like clues, permitting investigation into our ancestors' struggle for survival in an often harsh environment. Just as the printing press can be seen as a milestone in cultural change so can the Industrial Revolution be viewed as the pivotal date, around which our daily diet was altered for us. Everything that led up to the mass exodus from the land, for example, the various 18th Century Enclosure Acts, in the UK and later the Repeal of the Corn Laws, show how we went from being a rural autonomous population, living on a variety of home-grown foods according to the seasons, to a captive society of urban dwellers fed on a grim diet of limited and often adulterated ingredients.

Nothing, I believe, informs more upon the struggles and ultimate victory of the landed and landless early rural dwellers to survive the lean months of Winter than the Twelfth Night cake. This is a symbolic representation of Summer's bounties turned to Winter's sustenance, which slowly by action of those stalwarts of industrial and urban living, the Victorians, was downgraded to the Christmas Cake. The question you should ask however is what exactly was the Christmas period and when exactly did it end?

Diocese of Lincoln the Luttrell Psalter bas-de-page of people feasting. 14th century - British Library

The idea of removing decorations and trappings of Christmas on Twelfth Night and getting back to the daily grind is to my mind something that the Victorians would have loved and encouraged. The shortening of the Winter feast to the Twelve Days of Christmas and the designating of its end as the 5th of January refilled the factories and offices and re-started the wheels of commerce a-turning. As an even greater impetus to clear all festivities away, some bright spark came up with the idea of it being bad luck not to remove every sprig of holly and coloured glass bauble before the end of the Twelfth Night. As I sit here today, with my computer screen reflecting the twinkling fairy lights of my still verdant home-grown pine, I look out on a dismal rainy grey day and reflect how happy I am as the Yule log crackles in the stove, that we celebrate Old Christmas. In a few hours I will be putting a whole heap of dried fruits, to sparkle like gemstones under a glass or two of rum and fill the Kitchen with the scent of sinful celebration cookery.

Candlemas, Twelfth Night or What You Will

Shakespeare's famous play, a tale of intrigue, impersonation and incandescent romance in the Western Balkans was first performed on Candlemas, the second of February, 1602, as a fitting closure to the then much longer season of Christmastide. Candlemas as the name suggests, is often referred to as a religious festival of light but it does in fact go much further back to Imbolic the pagan festival of the start of Spring. This day traditionally marked a new beginning for the rural populace, when they took down and burnt or composted their Christmastide evergreens and got ready to prepare the land for new growth. For a rural population Winter was about staying indoors, keeping yourself and your animals warm, eating the stored, dried and cured foods of the previous year, until such time as it was sensible to venture forth and start the cycle again. The fact that the land can be damaged over this Winter period by both animal (livestock) and human intervention upon it makes this practice ever more sensible. If you are or have ever been a rural dweller or if you have your own urban plot or garden, then you will know the incredible joy and comfort that comes from knowing you have gathered in your crops by the end of Autumn and similarly in getting out the seed packets and garden tools at the beginning of Spring.

Left - A fabulous example of an 18th century Twelfth Night Cake, recreated here using the original contemporary sugar paste moulds. The cake was created by historicfood.com and it is well worth checking out their site for some more of their wonderful creations. By 1860 this cake had transmogrified into the ubiquitous white snow scene Christmas cake.

Feast Of Fools, Carnival and Cake

Teddy Wearing Andy's Crown
One of the best ways of stopping any sort of uprising from a captive, potentially starving population or one just discontent with its lot over the harsh Winter period, is to 'withdraw the bung ever so slightly from the cask'. According to the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, this allows, albeit for a brief period,  the urban populace to believe in a utopian or parallel universe, where the fool is the king and the king is a fool. Many carnivals, such as the local one here, which starts on the 24th of this month, still contain elements of political satire. In the British Army, this sense of the Feast of Fools is still celebrated with the Officers serving the junior ranks on Christmas Day. Similarly, here in France, we have the tradition of serving a galette des rois on or around new Twelfth Night. This is mostly a purchased puff pastry pie, usually filled with apple or frangipane. The galette is bought in a paper bag, which also contains two cardboard crowns covered with gold foil or it is purchased in boxed kit form with a pre-rolled pastry round, a powdered mix of frangipane, etc.,. The cake is then served to friends family and/or neighbours, with the slices precut by the host. It is passed around the table and as the cake is eaten the King and Queen of the feast are revealed as they respectively and hopefully espy, rather than bite into, a china fève within their piece of pie. 

A charming fève I found at a yard sale.
Mary Queen of Scots was thought to have first introduced the idea of the Twelfth Night cake and the concept of King and Queen of Misrule into the British Isles. As the word fève suggests, the choosing of the 'King', was traditionally made by virtue of a dried bean, a symbol of fertility and Spring and at some time later a pea was included in the cake recipe to designate the 'Queen'. In New Orleans I have seen some beautiful antique Limoges china red beans which were used there for galette des rois. In 1874 a French pastry cook had the idea of replacing the bean with a porcelain figurine, still to be known as fève and after the first World War, Limoges began to mass produce these for commercial and home-made galette. Sadly nowadays these rather charming representations of people and creatures have transmogrified into rather ugly characters, usually from the latest children's blockbuster. This year at a neighbour's galette, Andy was the King of the Bean, by virtue of finding a Star Wars Imperial T.I.E. fighter in his allotted portion of cake. This tradition, also of incorporating a fancy dress, continued right up into the Victorian period, when packs of character cards or inked paper prints were sold to be used with the cake during Twelfth Night parties. Guests would assume the character as dealt them in the cards. These were usually of a satirical nature as the names suggest, in fact much along the lines of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night players; Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

In Conclusion and Before the Recipe

So who indeed pinched Christmas, how did the three month festival of cheer during the Bleak Mid Winter Hungry Gap turn into a short, fast, feast 'broken by Boxing Day'? Maybe when people lost their autonomy over their food and their joy of growing and raising and storing up the good things of Spring and Summer and Autumn for a whole season of Winter eating. Here's the thing though, you don't have to lose old Christmas nor the Joys of Spring. Start with a Twelfth Night Cake and then it's on with the motley and out with the seed catalogues. Normally at this time, on Candlemas Eve, which is also Andy's Birthday we eat a Christmas pudding but sadly this year we have eaten them all but it gives me a great excuse to make a big cake!


I made enough mixture for one round or square, deep cake of 8 " or 23 cm diameter. I actually ended up making a 10" or 25.5 cm diameter hoop, which gave me a shallower cake that cooked more quickly but was still as succulent*. You can calculate the hoop size you will need from the weight of the cake, see table at end of article.

As I don't have a tin big enough, this was my first attempt at baking a cake in a 18th century 'Garth' or Cake Hoop of thick brown paper, organic cooking parchment and string to hold it all together. As it was so successful, I shall be using this method again but maybe also try a wooden garth, which we can fashion from fruit crate wood.

The traditional sugar paste confectioner's boards were made of wood often pearwood or box and with the re-emergence of cake decorating as a business and hobby there are companies now recreating these and other styles of mould in silicone. Left is a rare chestnut wood example of an 18th century Twelfth Night icing mould courtesy of historicfood.com

N.B. The inner layer of my home-made hoop was lightly buttered to avoid the cake sticking to the baking paper.

Oven Temperatures and Times

Pre-heat the oven to 150ºC or 300ºF, I'm cooking in a wood cooker so this does have what Mrs Beeton refers to as 'a good soaking heat'. I was amazed to find we achieved this with the addition of two pallet wood planks, allowing them to burn down to embers before adding the next two!

The cake is basically cooked when a knife blade (I used a wooden barbeque skewer) goes into the centre of the cake and comes out looking clean, for this size cake that is normally around 3¾ to 4¼ hours.

*N.B.This cake that I made today with my trusty 10" paper hoop and which worked beautifully, took only 3 hours.


I scaled these down from Mrs Beeton's wondrously huge Bride Cake, a recipe from 1865, it is the mix we've always used, with a few variations in fruit, for Christmas cakes, Wedding cake and rich fruit cakes in general.

455g or 1 lb of plain flour
255g or 9oz butter
590g or 1 lb 5oz dried fruit, I'm using prunes, figs, dates, apricots, cranberries orange and lemon candied peels and raisins.
100g or 3½ oz of nuts (The fruit and nuts may be steeped in the alcohol overnight). I find it makes them much more digestible anyway.
200g or 7 oz raw cane sugar
4 eggs - separated into yolks and whites
60ml or approx 2 fl oz of alcohol - I'm using rum and red wine.
1 teaspoon of mixed spice ('mixed spice' is a traditional British pie, pudding, biscuit and cake blend, made from, ground coriander, cassia, ginger, nutmeg, caraway and cloves) but Pumpkin Pie Spice is a suitable alternative.


Firstly, the butter and sugar are creamed with the hands. Another sense of being in touch with ones food comes from the way in which these large celebration cakes were mixed, always by hand. That is literally.  

I did in fact cheat a little as I was use raw dried organic sugar cane which is granular, so I did my first mix by hand and then used a whisk just to break up the sugar. The whites were then whisked into 'a strong froth' (I took this to be to meringue level) and I slowly incorporated them into the butter and sugar.

The beaten yolks and then the flour and mixed spice came next. Mrs Beeton, who lived at a time when many country people, particularly women, were drawn into towns and cities  to become servants, suggested that the cook should now mix the cake for '½ hour or longer'. Being my own mistress, I skipped that bit!

The dried fruit and alcohol is now added to the mix.

I then spooned the cake mix into my paper hoop paying attention to press it lightly but evenly into the whole area.

The cake was then placed in the oven and I checked it after two hours. At three hours and five minutes, I tested it with my wooden skewer and it was done.

A Few Words About the Hoop

The outer hoop was a double thickness of brown paper cut from the inner of an empty 25 kilo organic sugar bag, I get these from my local organic shop. The hoop was lined with a double layer of organic baking paper and the base also. I did not cut an exact circle for the base but made it a double sheet that could be pulled up the sides of the hoop. I also added an empty loaf tin in the gap to the side of the hoop, as my base tin was rather large. This was occasioned by Andy asking me if the mixture would leak out!! It didn't. As you can see from the photos below all that happened was the outer paper received a little butter from the base paper, as I buttered this beyond the circumference of the cake hoop!

I then left the cake to cool in its paper hoop overnight. This is not a necessary cooling time but it was 2 am!
In the next article I will look at how I decorated the cake and made organic almond paste and icing. The direct link is below under 'Related Articles'.

So enjoy the end of Winter and the coming of the Spring. As if to emphasise the point here,  Candlemas went out with a bang! As you will no doubt have surmised, I am posting this later than expected. We had a hurricane warning here on the coast but it thankfully remained at sea and came to nothing more here than taking down the internet for 2 days! However we did had a great excuse to extend Andy's Birthday, sitting around the fire, eating cake.

All that needs to said now is Bon Appėtit!

Hope to see you here again for another recipe from an old farmhouse in Normandie,
All the best,



Table for Hoop Size Diameters: 

This is a chart I used from an old cookery book, I converted it to metric rounded up to the nearest usable fraction.

For a Round Cake:

Hoop Size     Weight of cake mix       Hoop Size     Weight of cake mix        
inches                      lb oz                       cm                     kilos

11                              6 6                      28                        2.89 
10                              5 5                      25.5                     2.41 
 9                               4 4                      23                        1.93 
 8                               3 3                      20.5                     1.45 
 6                               2 2                      15.25                   0.96 
 5                               1 9                      12.75                   0.71 

For a Square Cake 

Hoop Size     Weight of cake mix       Hoop Size     Weight of cake mix        
inches                      lb oz                       cm                     kilos

10                              6 6                      25.5                     2.89 
 9                               4 4                      23                        1.93 
 8                               3 3                      20.5                     1.45 
 6                               2 2                      15.25                   0.96



Organic Almond Paste & Icing From Scratch

The big problem I used to have with making large celebration fruit cakes is that the cost of decorating them with the traditional covering...read more

Traditional Plum Pudding - John Bull's Own GLUTEN-FREE

A Victorian pudding recipe from 1865, which we have every year. This version was especially for my family in Scotland...read more

Traditional Plum Pudding from 1865

The roots of the plum pudding go back into the mists of time to a Celtic end-of-year celebration dish called 'plum porridge'...read more 

Old English 'Mincemeat' tart or God-cake GLUTEN-FREE

For this version left, I used a gluten-free flour, the trick with this is not to skimp on the butter otherwise...read more

Coventry God-cake or kitchel - dried fruit tart

Pudding by candlelight, a traditional gift of a rich dried fruit, spice, butter, apple and wine/spirit pastry, which was given at Candlemas but is so good eaten any time of the year....read more


©  Sue Cross 2017

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