Gaskell House Blogs

Twelfth Night Cakes

6th January 2019
in blog, Events, People

For the Friends Christmas party in December 2015, Anthony Burton and his sister Monica provided a “Twelfth Cake”.  In December 2018,  they had another go at such a cake for the Friends’ study day on “The Victorian Christmas”.  These cakes aroused some interest (as well as giving pleasure – we ate them!), so here is some information about how they happened.

First, the Twelfth Day of Christmas was much more important in the 19th and previous centuries than it is today.  There is no time to go into all the historical background, but suffice to say that in the mid-Victorian period, people liked to have parties on that day, and for these there were two necessities: a cake, and a set of riddle cards called “Twelfth Night Characters”.  There are quite a lot of pictures of the cakes, many of them on the packets that contained the cards.

Unsurprisingly, there were no strict rules on how to make and decorate Twelfth Cakes – people used their initiative – but pictures show that there were common features.  With many qualifications, it can be said that

  • The cakes were quite broad and not very high, and their top surface rose in a dome shape
  • They were iced, and the iced surface carried decorations of various kinds
  • At the apex of the top surface there was often a crown (sometimes two) and little flags often formed part of the decorations
  • Little figurines were often disposed on the top surface
  • Other decorations were sometimes disposed randomly, but often they were arranged in a geometrical pattern based on segments of the top and sides of the cake

Sources show that decorative figurines could be swans, animals, figures from circus or pantomime – almost anything, especially if looked as if it was capering.  Snowmen and Father Christmas, such as Monica and Anthony remembered from cakes of their childhood, would have been anachronistic.  In 2018 there came to hand a set of commercially produced Christmas cake “toppers” (this seems to be the technical term) representing figures such as you might find in a Victorian street:  beadle, charwoman, sweetmeat-seller, etc.  Though it is rather hard to imagine middle-class Victorian families choosing such decorations, they certainly seemed to fit with the Friends’ theme, A Victorian Christmas, so they were used.  One illustration, from about 1793, does seem to show such figures.

As for other decorations, it was observed that in recent times when heritage bodies have commissioned Twelfth Cakes from food historians, these experts have liked to use decorations made of sugar paste cast in moulds.  For Monica and Anthony, lacking both expertise in sugar sculpture and moulds, this was not an option.  In 2018, from a specialist baker came edible sugar roses and butterflies.  Otherwise, various edible commercial products were used: glacé cherries, candied fruits, angelica, sugar balls silvered or coloured.  These were disposed in imitation of Victorian cakes, so far as possible.

The total effect was at any rate noticeably different from the Christmas cakes we usually see, and duly attracted attention at the Friends’ event.   Maybe we can feature Twelfth Night cakes in future years.  It has even been suggested that, now we have acquired some experience in the matter, we might organise a Twelfth Cake workshop.  Let us know if this interests you.

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New cooks always want their own peculiar little odds & ends for cookery

Elizabeth Gaskell 1863