The end of the Christmas Season in Jane Austen’s era was marked on Twelfth Night by many with a celebration, which often included games, charades, punch and the all important Twelfth Night Cake.
Celebrations on Twelfth Night had long been a tradition in England dating from the medieval period. The celebrations- or revels- of Twelfth Night had always incorporated elements of disguise, elaborate display and social role reversal, often led by a Master of Ceremonies or a Lord of Misrule, but more often by the Bean King, so-called because he was elected by him discovering a dried bean cooked in his chosen slice of the Twelfth Night Cake. His Queen Consort was similarly discovered: she was the woman who found a dried pea in the cake.
This topsy-turvy world where the “king’ and “queen” could be the lowest members of the household, empowered to give out orders to their betters for the duration of the night survived after the Interregnum and the attempts to ban such festivities, but in a slightly changed form.
Samuel Pepys wrote about the great expense of his Twelfth Night Cake ( it cost him 20 shillings in 1668). His cake was cut into twenty pieces to be distributed among his guests, but no bean or pea was concealed within it. The “king “ and “queen” and other characters were found by guests picking slips of paper containing names of their characters from a hat.
The characters varied, and often took their inspiration from popular books or plays.
During Jane Austen’s life time, the celebration of Twelfth Night was at the height its of popularity. And during the 1790s sets of “characters” were available to purchase from enterprising stationers, and above is one example. They were cut up and chosen from a hat, the person having thus chosen having to maintain their “character” all though the evenings party.
Fanny Knight, Edward Austen Knight’s daughter and Jane Austen’s niece, wrote about some of her Twelfth Night Celebrations at Godmersham, the Knight’s country estate in Kent. Here is her report of the 1809 Twelfth Night Party:
…after Dessert Aunt Louisa who was the only person to know the characters…took one by one out of the room and equipped them, put them into separate rooms and lastly dressed herself. We were al conducted into the library and performed our different parts. Papa and the little ones from Lizzy downwards knew nothing of it and it was so well managed that none of the characters knew one another ..Aunt Louisa and L.Deeds were Dominos; F.Cage, Frederica Flirt (which she did excellently); M.Deeds, Orange Woman; Mama, Shepherdess; Self Fortune Teller; Edward, beau; G, Irish Postboy; Henry Watchman ;William, Harlequin; we had such frightful masks that it was enough to kill one with laughing at putting them on and altogether it went off very well and quite answered our expectations.
Though by Jane Austen’s time the cake was no longer used to assist in the choosing of characters, it was still and important part of the proceedings. They were costly and complicated to make properly and many people if they could manage to afford them bought them from confectioners shops.
In towns it became a tradition for the highly decorated cakes- garlanded with sugar paste- pastillage- or Plaster of Paris figures and crowns-to be displayed in confectioners shop windows which were illuminated small oil lamps. In the winter evenings people would go from shop to shop admiring the displays.
The first known recipe for a Twelfth Night cake is given in John Mollond’s recipe book of 1803 (this is the 1808 edition):
And here it is:
This was the recipe we followed at Ivan Day’s Taste Christmas Past course which I attended in the summer. The cake was a light fruit cakes, yeast risen, which had a similar texture and taste to the mixture used in German Stollen cakes today.
Lets see how it was made, shall we?
First you have to prepare your hoop :these were the fore-runners of cake tins, most often made of wood, and had to be lined with cartridge or brown paper smothered in softened butter, to prevent the cake burning and sticking.
The yeast is prepared and mixed with the dry ingredients.
Then it is put in font of the fire to rise, covered with a damp cloth.
When cooked and cool it is decorated.
A paste of marzipan is coloured with cochineal and covers the cake.
Then the important decoration begins. Or in reality it began a few days before for the tiny crowns ,which always were part of the decoration of this cake, have to be made in advance.
They are made from moulded sugar paste –or pastillage- made from a mixture of icing sugar and gum dragon or tragacanth.The moulds are made of box wood and are extremely fine grained, which makes them a perfect medium for fine carving.
This is the mould we used to create the crowns, and as you can see all the component part are here in one exactly carved mould.
The pastillage is worked into the mould and pressed down very hard to “take” the impression well.
The excess is cut off using a sharp blade,
and the completed piece removed from the mould by tapping it sharply on a hard surface
I can testify from my experience on the course that this is no easy exercise! No wonder people bought them from confectioners.
Once all the component parts are made,(above are the purple “velvet” cushion for the crowns) the cake can be decorated with the assembled crowns of coloured sugar paste, and edged with borders of roses
You can hopefully see from this close up just how beautifully intricate are the moulded pieces of pastillage .
These crowns can them be guided and painted and additional pastillage decorations can be added to suit.We ran out of time on our very hectic but fabulous course,and Ivan Day finished the cake after we had left to rest! This is the beautiful end result and I thank him for permission to use this image here:
So there you have it – Twelfth Night Regency Style,and as perhaps Jane Austen celebrated it. Sadly the tradition of celebrating Twelfth Night complete with character and cakes in England dwindled in the mid 19th century and now is virtually unknown. The Christmas Cake eaten in England today has more in common with the bride cakes of Jane Austen’s era (as we shall see in a few days time when our Emma season of posts begins) but I thought you might enjoy this excursion into this old celeration.