Twelfth Cake

Twelfth Cake is part of a tradition which dates from medieval times. It was a large fruit cake made and eaten to celebrate the Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which was a much bigger feast-day than Christmas at the time (Christmas did not gain its popularity until the 19th century). At one time, a large party was held on the night of 5 January at which a slice of this cake would be handed to guests as they arrived. A dried bean (and sometimes also a dried pea) would be baked into the cake; whoever found the dried bean and pea became King and Queen of Twelfth Night. In the 19th century, it was possible to buy a set of cards to accompany the cake. Each card had a character on it, and once the king and queen had been found, the remaining guests would pick one of the cards from out of a hat and play their chosen character for the duration of the party. During Victorian times, in big households, the cake was often elaborately iced using special wooden moulds or confectioner's boards (one cake apparently had a working water canon on it!). As the tradition of Twelfth Night died out and the Christmas feast became more popular, the Twelfth Cake was adapted and became what we now know as Christmas cake.


- 7 lbs / 3,2 kg flour
- ¾ cup / 180 ml fresh yeast
- 1 lb / 450 g butter, at room temperature and cut into small lumps
- 1 ¼ lb / 560 g sugar
- 4 ½ lbs / 2 kg currants
- 1 tsp each of ground cloves, cinnamon, mace (optional) and nutmeg
- Candied orange and lemon and lime peel
- A little warm milk
(Beware: these quantities make an exceedingly large cake!! - be careful to reduce for modern appetites)

Period Recipe

"Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a 'sponge'* with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the 'sponge' is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain."* A sponge is a mixture of yeast dissolved in a little milk.From John Mollard, The Art of Cookery, London; Gilbert and Rivington publishers, 1803. Re-edition The Art of Cookery, London; Whitaker and Co, 1836 pp. 237-238.

Bon appetit

- Grease and line a (very!) large cake tin.
- Place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre.
- Add the yeast. If using fresh yeast, give it time to foam.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
- Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for several hours at a low temperature, until the cake is firm to the touch.
- When cake is cool, ice and decorate as you will.

Type of Recipe