Twelfth Night – Cakes and wassailing

There are more days to Christmas than you might think, including Twelfth Night, with its associated cakes and mulled ale.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, and as such you are entirely free to disagree with the following statement, but you will be wrong:

Christmas does not start in October!

The one and only exception to this rule should be the making of a Christmas pudding which then has a decent amount of time to mature and be ‘fed’ with alcohol.

Conversely though, the next statement may prove slightly contentious but is securely based on historical fact:

Christmas does continue into January!

Ok, so it doesn’t in the modern world, because unlike in days of yore the world doesn’t just grind to a halt in the period between Christmas and New Year and for the first few days of January. Sadly, most of us have to go to work at some point. Putting that inconvenience aside though, the festive season technically does continue way after New Years Day.

The evening of the 5th (or 6th depending on who you listen to)1 January is Twelfth Night, the evening before the epiphany (the day that the three Magi reached Bethlehem and saw the baby Jesus). You don’t have to believe in all of the theology to join in the celebrations, you almost certainly didn’t let it stop you joining in on Christmas day

Twelfth Night is largely ignored today, although most people know that it is the last date you should take Christmas decorations down without incurring bad luck, but it wasn’t always so. In medieval and Tudor periods this was a bigger and more important celebration than Christmas day.

History and custom

There is a wealth of history and all sorts of interesting customs to discover, but we will skip very briefly over most of them to get to the interesting food bits. Essentially it was always a night of dancing, eating and drinking prodigious amounts and generally having a very celebratory time indeed.

What set it apart from any other night in the tavern was the crowning of a King and or Queen to rule over the festivities. The ruler is chosen early in the evening not through any democratic or feudal process, but by the consumption of a cake…

In some European countries, like Spain, Epiphany (or three kings day) is the day that you receive gifts, which actually makes a lot of sense since the Magi were the ones bringing presents in the Christmas story. Whilst the Spanish eat it on the day of Epiphany itself rather than the night before, they still observe the tradition of the King’s cake.

The premise is simple, inside a cake is baked a bean, coin, or cast iron/porcelain figure. The variety and decoration of the cake really varies wildly depending on location and moment in history. The cake is served to all guests and whoever finds the surprise addition hopefully doesn’t break any teeth and is then crowned king or queen.

Wassailing

Wassailing is one Twelfth Night tradition from the 1400’s that lasted up until the 1950’s before almost fading away, but has been having a bit of a revival in recent years.

Wassail, meaning the drink of good wishes and holiday cheer is a sweetened and spiced ale or cider based drink, traditionally served in huge silver or pewter bowls. It would be shared and passed between family and friends with the greeting “Wassail”, meaning “Be well”.

Much like carol singing, wassailers would often go from house to house singing and wishing their neighbours good health. A wassail bowl would be carried by the singers filled with mulled cider or ale, and each house they visited would be asked to contribute to the bowl. The majority of the songs sung end with a request for a penny, a cup of cider, or a piece of cake.

You would probably get some strange looks at best if you turned up at your neighbours door tonight with a large bowl asking for cider, so it might be prudent to skip that bit. Instead eat whatever you like, maybe have a candlelit feast with some myrrh or frankincense oil added for authentic nativity gift effect. Finish with a cake of the appropriate kind, with or without a coin and a coronation.

Whatever else you do or don’t do, it is definitely worth trying out a wassail of your own. There’s a recipe for a simple and tasty version just below.

Lamb’s Wool wassail

It’s just apples and ale or cider really with a few added spices and a bit of sugar, but then that sounds like a pretty great combination. The original recipe calls for “cider, hard cider, ale, or a mixture of cider and ale”, so it’s pretty much whatever you fancy. The amount of sugar should be varied depending on how sweet your chosen liquid is.

Ingredients

  • Baking apples6
  • Brown sugar2-6 tbsp
  • Cider or Ale2 l
  • Nutmeg1/4 tsp
  • Cinnamon1/2 tsp
  • Ground ginger1/2 tsp
  1. Core the apples and then roast them for around an hour at about 230°C (450°F), until they are very soft and bursting out of their skins.

  2. In a large pan warm the cider and/or ale and dissolve the sugar a few spoons at a time, tasting as you go to make sure it isn’t too sweet.

  3. Add the spices, bring to just below boiling point (so the alcohol doesn’t all evaporate) and then lower the heat and let it very gently simmer for about ten minutes.

  4. Place the apples in a punch bowl (or whatever bowl you might have to hand), either whole or smushed up and pour the hot liquid over them.

Serve with nuts, dried fruit, or ideally Postre del Músico.

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