Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Time to Bake Your Rich Cake for Twelfth Night

Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Isabella reporting:

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 my 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.

Loretta and I wish we could serve you all a big slice of festive Rich Cake today, for this is our thousandth post for for the Two Nerdy History Girls. Who'd have thought we'd ever have so much to say? 


Anonymous said...

Let me be the first to congratulate you (unless other comments are awaiting approval) on your 1000th post. Makes this an even more historic day! I enjoy almost every thing you write; often I send a link to my daughter who is at college (majoring in history - 3rd generation of history majors.)

Thanks for all your good work. Now if you would just send me a slice of that cake done up in a box like a wedding cake, I'd be perfectly happy. My next visit to Billsburg (as we used to call it when I was a history major at UVA) will be much richer because of your wonderful posts.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Congratulations on your 1,000th post ladies! I follow your blog every day and never fail to learn something both interesting and entertaining. Thank you!!

Keri@AWH said...

WOW, congrats!

Rich cake sounds delicious, I think I'll look up a recipe and try it. Sounds like the perfect dessert for the holidays.

gio said...

The cake sounds delicious!

And congratulations on your 1000th post! Here's to many more!

Barbara Monajem said...

Happy 1000th Birthday, and Many Happy Returns of the Day! :~))

Tabubilgirl said...

Congratulations on your thousand'th post. I've been reading - and thoroughly enjoying your blog for a year and a half now - here's wishing you thousands more!

ZipZip said...

Twelfth Night cake to bake, already? Makes sense: I remember a friend's mother starting her poppy seed cakes about this time, when the afternoon light always seems faded. What a spicy aroma'd introduction to the Big Season and what a great idea.

Happy 1,000th: have thoroughly appreciated your blog and wonder if sometime you all might create a best-of book, on paper, of these enjoyable essays.

Very best,


Unknown said...

A lovely read and informative too. Congrats on your milestone post!

tokeberry said...

Love reading here- congrats!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks for all the kind words for our mini-celebration - we couldn't have done it without you! :)

One of our readers on Facebook suggested this modern-day replica Turk's Head baking pan. No endorsement from me (I haven't seen it in person, let alone baked with it) but worth a look if you're considering trying the recipe:

Anonymous said...

My Grandmother set her raisins to soak in Brandy at the end of September in order to be ready for fruitcake making!

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

We make "Roscon de Reyes" for 12th night, which in Spain is "Dia de los Reyes". We might be only people in New Hampshire who celebrate this, but Hubby is from Madrid. I won't make the cake yet, but it's a good time to set the fruit to soaking in brandy and to plan the party. It's a big deal in our house because that's the day we exchange gifts with the extended family.

NOBODY said...

I'm doing research on fruitcakes and it is SO difficult to find information. It seems that Twelfth cake is a kind of "predecessor" of the fruitcake. But I am not sure if my conclusion makes any sense... Any ideas? (Love your web site, by the way.)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The Twelfth Night cake IS a fruitcake, so I guess it would be considered a predecessor of the modern holiday fruitcake. The main difference is that now in America it's associated with Christmas rather than Twelfth Night.

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