Yet more Twelfth Cake

I’m back! I’ve been lecturing like a beast, living on oatcakes and cheese as I drive around the country in my increasingly crumb-filled car. It’s Christmas, again, which means time for my annual plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake.

Really. Seriously. What IS the point of Christmas Cake? I adore it, I could wallow in it and eat it every day (always with cheese), but for many people its sort of lost its place in the world… We make them (or buy them), save them ’til Christmas’, and…then what? Friends come over – we feed them mince pies. Pre-Christmas festivities – we don’t want to broach the cake. Christmas day – we’re too full to eat it. And after Christmas there’s a slow, increasingly guilty feeling as we fail to broach the bugger and feel we should perhaps wait for some undefined special occasion. And snacking is bad, and sugar is the devil etc etc. Sigh. There is, however, a solution! This year, get your cake, unwrap it (or before you ice it – this may be a tad too late), upend it, and stick a dried pea and a bean in each side.  Plonk it back on the plate and decorate as per usual. The kicker is that you then save it, to be eaten with lovely people and lots of booze on Twelfth Night (6th January) while you all have a have a proper party to send out the season. (Obviously I am assuming no-one reading this does anything terrible like ‘dry’ January, or, even worse, ‘Veganuary’. Please. January is a TERRIBLE month. You need bacon and wine.)

Srsly, argh.
Srsly, argh.

…Ok, realistically it may be that even the thought of Twelfth Night is making you feel a bit queasy, what with next year possibly lining up to be even worse, on a global politics/world meltdown scale than this year, and in fact you want to bury your head in the cake right now, and now come up for breath – but I still feel we need to address this cake situation. How about going some way toward it?  You could still to the bean and pea thing? Right? With a crown from a cracker or the finder of the bean, or a small token of your esteem. Makes cutting the cake way cooler….

This year, I am singing the praises of Twelfth Cake in public not once, but twice. First up is Victorian Bakers at Christmas (airs Christmas Day at 9.30pm and repeated Boxing Day), and next up is a special, 12th Night themed episode of The Kitchen Cabinet on January 7th at 10.30am, recorded at the Banqueting House in London. I am bound to be asked for the recipes, so here they are. Enjoy.

For Bakers, we were looking at an 1840s Christmas, when Twelfth Cake was really at its peak (see my previous post on the subject).The bakers were tasked with making cake for all, not just the fashionable bon ton who could afford the beautiful concoctions sometimes featured at heritage sites, but  the riff and the raff and everyone in between. Their cakes needed to be quick to make and decorate, and easy to sell – bright, fun, and funky. Inspired by the lurid descriptions of the time, the results were utterly joyous, and when the shop window was dressed it was so spot on that it made me very happy.

The shop.
The shop.

The cake recipe was from The Knight Family Cookbook, which is linked to Jane Austen through her brother, and was reprinted as a facsimile by Chawton House a few years ago.

To Make a Great Cake (a note in the margin reads ‘good cake’)

Take 5 quarts of fine flower, a pound of fine sugar beaten, half an ounce of mace, 3 nutmegs, a few cloves, a little cinnamon all well beaten, 8 pounds of currance, & a pound of raisons of the sun stoned and shred, mix all of these in the dry flower; then take 3 gills of cream, 3 pounds and a half of butter melted in it, almost a quart of new ale yeast, 20 eggs which beat with the yeast well together & strained in. Then put a jack of brandy [a jack is half a gill] into the cream & butter, so pour it to the rest blood warm, & mix it lightly with your hands. It must be about as stiff as a hasty pudding, so beat it with your hands a good while, & have ready half a pound of candied lemon & half a pound of citron cut into pieces. Then put your cake into your hoop with 3 or 4 papers at the bottom. If your hoop be half a yard over it will do – when you have put in some of your cake, show in some of the candied lemon and citron, then put in more of the cake, then the rest of the sucket, then the rest of the cake, then cut t over with a knife or it will crack, but don’t prick it at all. This cake is very subject to scorch, so when it colours lay a paper over it. It must stand in the oven full 2 hours, longer if it be thick when almost cold ice it.

I love the wording of this recipe, from the hoop half a yard across (we had to commission one), to the assumption that the cook knows the texture of a hasty pudding (thick batter). It speaks volumes that the writer assumes blood warm makes perfect sense – which it did to me, who spends half my life reading recipes like this, but it confused a couple of the bakers. And teh use of the term suckets for candied lemon and citron is a throwback to the 17th century and earlier, and, along with the use of yeast as the raising agent, hints at the longevity of this kind of recipe. Clearly if you decide to make it, scale it down.

For The Kitchen Cabinet, we were going all 17th century, in keeping with the glories of the Banqueting House venue (THAT CEILING!). Thus the recipe which I chose for the show was an earlier one (though the above would have been around then, easily). I also inserted tokens into the cake, whereas for Bakers, set 200 years later, we played with cut up Twelfth Night Character cards. The tokens were based on the list given in Bridget Henisch’s Cakes and Characters, where she quotes Henry Teonge, recounting a party at sea in 1676: ‘we had much mirth on board, for we had a Great Cake made, in which we put a bean for the king, a pea for the Queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold, and a rag for the slut’. (Pepys records similar shenanigans, but he rigged it so that a friend of his under investigation for fraud got the clove…)

Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.
Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.

Again, the cake is yeast-risen, and packed with fruit and booze. Neither recipe contains much sugar; a reflection of the high cost of sugar before the late 18th century. Both benefit from a little while to rise, this more than the former. This one is somewhat bread-ier, and keeps less well (hence the ground almonds, which improve keeping qualities), but it is also slightly lighter, and was eaten by the audience before any of the panellists got a look-in. It’s from John Nott’s Cook’s Dictionary (1726).

To make an extraordinary Plum Cake

Take five pound of flour, two pound of butter, put the butter into the flour, five pound of currants, a large nutmeg, three quarters of an ounce of mace, and a quarter of an ounce of cloves, finely grated and beat; take three quarters of a pound of sugar, twelve eggs, leaving out three whites, put in a pint of ale yeast; then warm as much cream as will wet it, and pour some sack to your cream, and make it as thick as batter; then pownd three quarters of a pound of almonds, with sack and orange flower water, beat them but grossly; add a pound of candy’d citron, orange and lemon-peel, mix’d all together; put a little paste at the bottom of your hoop, and put it in.

Again, the language is revealing, though less old-fashioned than the manuscript recipe: tidied up, perhaps, for a modern reading audience. The paste at the bottom of the hoop is a nifty idea to stop the bottom burning, and doubles as a cake board when the thing is served. It’s a trick I’ve found in Victorian books as well, and it’s an easy way round having to cut bits of wood to shape or find silver platters upon which to serve your cake if you are trying to be vaguely in keeping with periods before foil-covered cardboard cake boards. Agnes Marshall even has a recipe specifically for cake bottom pastry.

Oh! And to prove I put my money where my mouth is, I have made all of my Christmas Cakes into Twelfth Cakes this year, peas and beans in every one. Some have, however, already been consumed…

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Yes, they were vaguely themed: this one is vaguely Tudor (and uses Tudor sugarplate)
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C18th gum plate.
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I made myself a Greedy Queen cake, AND?
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More sugarplate, different recipe, new moulds.
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From a book from 1904. STILL a TWELFTH CAKE, OK.
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The early C18th version. M insisted we try one to check they were edible and it was gone in minutes.

 

Happy Christmas!

 

The recipes, side by side, for scaling purposes.

Knight Family Cookbook

10 pints of flour, 1lb caster sugar, 1/2oz mace, 3 nutmegs, few cloves, bit cinnamon, 8lb currants, 1lb raisins, 12 fl oz cream, 3 1/2 lb butter, 2pt ale yeast (or fresh yeast mixed into a blend of weak beer and water), 10 medium eggs (or 20 pullets’ eggs), 2 fl oz brandy, 8oz candied lemon peel, 8 oz candied citron peel,

I tend to do an eighth for a standard 12 inch cake tin. Note the liquid measurement for a dry foodstuff in the flour.

Nott

5lb flour, 2lb butter, 5lb currants, 1 nutmeg, 3/4oz mace, 1/4oz cloves, 12oz sugar, 6 medium eggs (12 pullets), leaving out 2 whites (3 whites), 1pt ale yeast (or weak beer and water mixed with fresh yeast – or dried), glug of sherry or brandy, orange flower water, 12oz ground almonds, 1lb candied mixed peel.

I quarter this and it’s pretty ample.

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Death in the loaf

Tonight’s episode of Victorian Bakers takes the history of bread forward, from the 1830-40s of episode one, to the 1870s. The bakery has changed too, from the rural surroundings of Sacrewell, near Peterborough, to the very urban Black Country Living Museum, on the outskirts of Dudley. This reflects changes in Victorian Britain. In the 1830s, most people still lived in the countryside and, although industrialisation and urbanisation was well underway, we still had an essentially agrarian economy. By the mid-century for the first time more people lived in cities than in the countryside, and by the 1860s we were entering into a second phase of industrialisation. Now it wasn’t about mills and child labour: it was about finding the balance between machinery and manpower.

As you’ll see if you watch the episode, baking lagged behind other industries. There were far more bakers than were necessarily needed, so there was little incentive to install expensive machinery, when labour was cheap and plentiful. Other workers unionised and forced through changes in working hours and conditions. Bakers also unionised, and went on strike regularly, causing minor meltdown in the middle class press, but they never achieved their aims of no overnight-working and a reasonable shift length. Nor did mechanisation reach the average – still very small – bakery until after the First World War in many cases. Indeed, traditional High Street bakers still work very long hours, and they still work through the night (though they do have mixing machines). All of our bread bakers – the Johns and Duncan – shrugged off the thought of working into the night and getting up in the small hours as something they were well used to, and which they still saw as normal in that industry.

The episode was hard to film, because we all did the nightshifts, and not only fatigue, but also practical matters such as light and the fact it was freezing cold and drizzling, made it rather less pleasant than Sacrewell. It was doubly difficult for the bakers because they were confronting a period in bread’s history which in most cases shocked, and offended them to the core.

The programme is emphatically not a challenge programme – we were in no way testing the bakers, and there was never a question of success or failure. Any jeopardy the viewer feels comes out of the situations and tasks which we all tackled together. It is a living history format, which essentially means it’s based on experiential learning. Within archaeology, a field both Alex (my co-presenter) and I are trained in, there’s a strong element of experimental learning – have a go and see – which underlies both his and my academic approaches to our chosen fields. It’s why it was so important to me that the bakers were professionals, and that they knew what they were doing. There’s nothing to be learnt – by us or, more importantly bearing in mind that this is intended for a wide, general audience, by viewers – by someone who can’t do something trying to do it and finding it hard. The reaction of the team to the adulteration segment in this episode was therefore doubly telling.

Bread had always been a focus for public and official scrutiny. In medieval Britain, bakers were subject to rigid regulation, including on price. A vital piece of legislation called the Assize of Bread was passed in 1266, and set a standard price for a loaf. The loaf size could vary, as market conditions changed, but it ensured that consumers could always afford a loaf of daily bread. There were also penalties for selling underweight loaves and adulteration. The assize remained in place, albeit modified, until 1815, but regulation on adulteration remained in force.

Some things were easy to adulterate, hard to detect, and relatively harmless. Milk and beer were watered down, and potatoes or other cheap starches could be added to bread and pre-prepared cooked dishes (the pies, soups and stews which formed the bulk of working class takeout food). Even many of the adulterants which did pose a health risk – such as the chalk or the alum which we use in the programme – wouldn’t have killed you. Or rather, shouldn’t have killed you. They wouldn’t do much harm to most of us today. But this was an era of widespread and worsening malnutrition, especially in towns. The poor, then as now, had limited access to food shops, no space to grow their own fruit and veg, little time, money and, again in an echo of today, often had no real knowledge of what was nutritionally useful or of how to prepare it. They also lacked cooking facilities or money for fuel. They were utterly reliant on what they could buy, and therefore at the mercy of manufacturers. And manufacturers, especially bakers, were only one step above their customers, desperate to make a tiny profit, and under constant pressure to cut corners. The millers who supplied them were under similar pressures, which is why the end consumer faced a double whammy in the worst cases: adulterated by the miller, adulterated by the baker. It was no-one’s fault, per se, but it was a growing problem in the 1850s and 60s.

Alum is an astringent, and it can irritate the stomach lining. In the young, old, or sick, it could have been, if not fatal by itself, certainly a contribution to illness and eventual death. Additionally, substitutions, such as water for milk, removed a significant proportion of the good stuff, and replaced it with empty stuff (a bit like fat-free yoghurt today, bleurk). If you were 3, and reliant on milk and bread for your health, and your bread was an irritant, and your milk largely water, it’s easy to see the bad consequences in store. In truth, very few loaves would have had as much in as ours did, but in some cases the proportions were dangerous, and, of course, data is hard to obtain. By the mid-century there was growing pressure on the government from health officials to investigate these food frauds for the good of the whole nation – but especially the put-upon workers, without whom industry would crumble.

The Lancet, founded in 1823 as a medical journal, and still in publication (and still very important) today, spearheaded the battle against food adulteration. There were a number of crucial individuals, but particularly vital were the analyses and articles written by Arthur Hill Hassell. In the face of government disbelief, denial and vague suggestions that it would all get sorted out by market forces, they launched a campaign showing just how widespread the issue was. In the 1850s, when Hassell carried out analyses of London foods, not a single bread loaf was alum-free. Tea, mustard, pickles, beer, milk….the list of foods which seemed pure, but were potentially deadly was shockingly long. Eventually the government rather reluctantly passed the Food Adulteration Act (1860) which sort of provided sort of funding if localities really really wanted to test foods and really insisted on prosecution. It did sod all. The struggle for a decent Act was lengthy, and makes for fascinating reading (I’ve put some references below, as this is very bare bones). In 1875 an Act was finally passed which did have some teeth, and which still forms the basis of legislation today. It worked, and by the 1880s, not only were foods generally testing negative for adulterants, but canny companies were realising that marketing foods as ‘pure’ was a good way to sell them. Hence all of those PURE COCOA adverts from the late 19th century, and hence, in the end, loose products such as tea, coffee, and cocoa, being sold in nice little sealed packets with a clear maker’s mark as a brand of quality.

We haven’t entirely sorted the issues out, of course, but today adulterants have to be tested to make sure they won’t kill you, and they generally have to be declared as additives. And some things have come full circle – chalk is back in bread. Now it’s a good thing, adding calcium and making up for people consuming fewer dairy products than once they did.

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The bakers (l-r): Harpreet, John Swift, John Foster, and Duncan

Further reading:

John Burnett, Plenty and Want
Bee Wilson, Swindled
John Marchant et al, Bread
Arthur Hill Hassell’s original Lancet reports (available on Google Books)
EXARC, the Experimental Archaeology Group (website here)

The Victorian Bakers website is here – it’s on iPlayer for a little while yet.