Thursday, December 10, 2015

From the Archives: Time to Bake Your Rich Cake for Twelfth Night

Thursday, December 10, 2015
Isabella reporting:

A worthy repeat post for seasonal celebrations from our archives....

If you were the cook for a great house in the 17th-early 19th centuries, or simply a woman who lived in a sufficiently prosperous household, you'd be baking your Rich Cake, left, for Twelfth Night celebrations now. The Christmas holidays were also a popular time for weddings,and the Rich Cake would be the wedding cake of choice, too.

Celebratory cakes of the past were not the frothy, towering constructions of piped and colored icing that they are now. What made them festive was the lavishness of their ingredients, not their outer display. These cakes would be rich with eggs and butter and sugar, candied fruit and costly imported spices, brandy and sherry. With eggs as the only leavening, the texture would be dense to modern tastes, more of a cross between our pound cake and a fruit cake. But because the ingredients were fresh (or freshly ground), there'd be none of the chemical-preservative flavor that makes many 21st century fruitcakes such bad jokes.

Rich Cakes were often baked in a Turk's-head pan, shaped much like contemporary Bundt pans. Once unmolded, they could be wrapped in cloth and soaked with more liquor to develop their flavor and moistness. By the time the cakes were served in late December or January, they would truly be worth their star status on the holiday table.

During a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the cooks in the kitchen of the Governor's Palace were baking the Rich Cakes for Twelfth Night. I was there for the final unmolding, right, a process that apparently involves exactly the same held-breaths and crossed fingers familiar to modern bakers. But as you can see, the cake slipped free with nary a crumb left behind.

If you'd like to try making a Rich Cake yourself, Colonial Williamsburg has put the recipe that they use (from Hannah Glasse's classic 18th c. cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy) on their Historic Foodways site. In case the non-specific nature of an 18th c. recipe is too daunting, the site provides a modern version, too.

Photographs ©2012 Susan Holloway Scott.


Donna Thorland said...

This adaption of an 18th century recipe, developed by Erica Leahy at Jockey Hollow, is pretty fantastic too:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it celebrated on the twelfth night of Christmas (January 6th) not the 12th day of December?

Mariah Jett said...

Ladies, thank you so much for your wonderful blog! My first trip to CW was this past weekend and having experienced my first immersive day in 18th c. clothing, I am completely hooked! I am plotting and planning my next trip already. Your blog has been incredibly helpful, and I've only been reading for a half hour or so! Consider me subscribed!

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