Twelfth Night is a Christian holiday typically celebrated on January 5 or 6, concluding the 12 days of Christmas and celebrating the visit of the Magi (the three kings). Twelfth Night is also, of course, the name of a Shakespeare play, although whether he wrote it to be performed during holiday festivities is up for debate. As Shakespeare scholar Michael Dobson puts it:
It is quite possible that Shakespeare himself called this play only by what subsequently became its subtitle, What You Will, perhaps thereby signalling its status as a contrasting companion piece to his previous comedy As You Like It. But it isn’t inappropriate that this play should be associated with a day which in Shakespeare’s time came as the climax of the festive season, the occasion for music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, and parties during which whoever found the bean baked into a special cake would be declared ‘Lord of Misrule’ for the night.
In the image above from the Folger collection, William Shakespeare is celebrating Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany) with characters from his plays. Can you spot Hamlet and Falstaff?
See the big cake over to the left? A traditional Twelfth Night cake has three dried beans or trinkets hidden inside. Those who find the beans or trinkets in their pieces of cake are crowned the “Twelfth Night Kings” for the remainder of the party. The kings distribute gifts to all the children and select the songs and games.
Here are instructions for how to make a Twelfth Night cake.
- 8 cups of all-purpose flour, sifted
- 6 eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 pound butter or shortening
- 2 cups whole milk, scalded then cooled to lukewarm
- 1/2 ounce yeast (2 1/4-ounce packages, or about 4 1/2 tsp)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- A few cloves
- A dash of cinnamon
- A little ginger
- Sweetmeats to your liking (candied lemon peel, orange peel, and citron)
- Candies or frosting to decorate!
Have ready a greased parchment paper or baking pan. In a bowl, combine 2 cups flour with the salt; set aside. Next, sift 6 cups of flour into a large mixing bowl. Dissolve a half-ounce of yeast in a little warm water. Make a hole in the center of the flour. Pour in the yeast. Knead and mix the flour with one hand, while adding the 2 cups of milk with the other. In yet another mixing bowl, beat eggs with butter, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, sweetmeats and sugar until light. Add to dough, kneading lightly with your hands, and adding more eggs if the dough is a little stiff. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, then add the reserved flour and salt. Knead the dough by turning it over on itself three times and set to rise again, covered with a cloth for about an hour. Take it up and work again lightly, and then form into a ring.
This is a large amount of dough, so it may be divided and baked in two or more cakes. Pat gently and flatten a little. Set the ring in the middle. Cover the pan with a clean cloth, and set the cake to rise for an hour longer. When well risen, glaze the loaves lightly with a beaten egg. Place in 325° oven; let bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or less if making smaller loaves. Decorate with colored icings and decorator candies, as desired.
Don’t forget to hide the beans inside!