It is January.
If you’ve come here for upbeat positivity about how we can all make some decent resolutions and start new health kicks then I’ve got news for you: you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site.
For the rest of you who, like me, have no intention of starting a juice cleanse nor any plans to give up chocolate or alcohol this month (why would you?!), read on.
My family has a tradition of getting together on the evening of 5th January and having a Twelfth Night dinner. It’s nothing too fancy – just a stew and some spuds – but it’s a great way to draw a line under the festive period and gives us all something to look forward to during the first working week after the break.
What is Twelfth Night?
Put simply, it’s the evening of the final 12 days after Christmas. Put less simply (and depending on who you ask), Twelfth Night is either the 5th January or the 6th January – it basically comes down to whether or not you count Christmas Day as being the 1st of the 12 days.
The 6th January is the Epiphany – the day the 3 Magi supposedly reached the infant Jesus to bestow their very child friendly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on him. Traditionally it’s Epiphany that was the big party of the festive season and not Christmas, which was reserved for contemplation and prayer.
In medieval England, 6th January marked the beginning of eight days of celebrations called the Feast of Epiphany. This feast began on the 6th and lasted until 13th January and it was during this celebratory week-and-a-day that gifts were given and general merriment made.
Twelfth Night Cake
One of the merriments to be made was Twelfth Night cake. These were rich fruit cakes which eventually developed into our modern Christmas cake. They were often drenched in alcohol and, in subsequent years, were decorated with a thick layer of royal icing.
Twelfth Night cakes could be as highly decorated or as simple as the baker could afford. By the Georgian period, they’d become extremely elaborate affairs and were decorated with feathers, gold, and sugar paste models of increasing intricacy.
But the thing that seperated twelfth night cakes from your bog standard fruit cake was the bean inside it. And this is where all the fun came from.
A bean? In a cake?
The tradition goes like this: a dried bean would be placed inside the cake mixture before baking. When the cake was cut and shared out, whoever found the bean would be crowned king for the day and everyone else would have to do as they said.
There are hundreds of variants to the game: in 1676 Henry Teong, a British naval captain, described a slightly NSFW version:
We had a great cake made, in which was 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… which caused much laughter to see our Lieutenant prove the cuckold, and more to see us tumble over the other in the cabin, by reason of the rough weather.The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
“By reason of the rough weather” – nothing at all to do with the drinking and booze in the cake, then?
The French version of the game, according to 16th century writer Étienne Pasquier, included forcing the youngest child in the house to sit under the table and, as the master of the house cut the cake, shout out the names of the recipient of each slice. The idea was that the child (ignorant of the rank or age of the assembled diners and – importantly – unable to see which piece the bean was in) would call out the names of the guests in whichever order took their fancy. The result of this was that it was completely random who received the lucky slice.
The idea of putting a bean or counter into a cake in order to crown a ‘king’ seems to have been one that was shared across many European countries – not just Britain and France. It’s a tradition that maybe had roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a December-time feast in honour of the Roman god Saturn and as part of the celebrations a ‘ruler’ would be appointed by lot from each household to be the master for the day.
As with anything like this, it’s impossible to say for sure that the Twelfth Night game developed from the games played during Saturnalia, but its popularity across multiple European countries and the vagueness of its origins suggests there may be some links.
Whatever the origins may be, my family prefers the French version to the ‘sluts and cuckolds’ version. This is partly because it’s a lot less awkward to see your dad crowned a ‘king’ than a ‘slut’, but also because it allows us to (lovingly) berate my younger sister and shout at her to “get under the table and stay there, you ignorant child!”
She is 26 years old.
Galette des Rois or Fry Blaunched?
There’s another reason my family prefers the French version of Twelfth Night cake to the English one. We’re usually too full of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake by Twelfth Night to feel excited about another fruitcake, but the French version – called a Galette des Rois – is nothing like that. Traditional Galette des Rois are puff pastry discs filled with frangipane. They are quick, simple and utterly delicious.
The trouble was I couldn’t find an original recipe for Galette des Rois. They must exist, but my modern French is bad enough, and my Middle French is non-existent.
What I did find was something that I though might capture an essence of them. It was in Forme of Cury, a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master cooks of Richard II. Many English recipes at this time took inspiration from French recipes and in fact quite a few recipes in F.o.C. share similarities with recipes in a contemporaneous French work, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Just to be clear, though, I’m not at all saying the experiment I tried today was a precursor to modern Galette des Rois.
Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile. close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith
Take blanched almonds and grind them to powder and place them on a [thin sheet of pastry]. Close it therein and fry it in oil. Add clarified honey and wine and bake it therewith.Forme of Cury. (Attempted) translation my own.
A word on pastry.
It seemed I was dealing with a fried, almond ravioli thing. Not quite the same as light puff pastry with a frangipane filling, but I was willing to try it.
Like all good medieval recipes (and if you’ve read any other of my medieval posts you can join in with this bit): there were no instructions. No details on how to make the pastry, or what ingredients to use, or even just a hint at any measurements.
Medieval pastry contained no fat. They didn’t use butter, suet or lard like we might today – most pastries were a simple mix of water and flour.
There were some additions, though. Egg was sometimes used instead of water to form a richer pastry and spices like saffron might be used to give a deeper colour. Because we were, after all, celebrating Twelfth Night I decided to really splash out and used a flour, egg and saffron mixture. I know, I know; such decadence so soon after Christmas!
I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could; the word “foile” in the recipe actually meant as thin as a sheet of paper. Then I blitzed blanched almonds in a blender (you could use a mortar and pestle for a true medieval experience if you want but honestly, who has the time?) and cut the dough into neat ribbons.
I calculated I could fit a small teaspoon of filling into each pastry parcel without it spilling out the edges during the cooking. Once my ravioli-esque Frys were complete, I fried them in hot oil for a couple of minutes on both sides.
In the oil they puffed up nicely and looked like mini Galette des Rois, which I was really pleased about. I had to push a couple of them down with the back of a spoon as the sheets of pastry kept separating, threatening to spill the crushed almonds into the pan.
Once they were nice and crisp – but not brown – I laid them in a baking dish and poured over a mixture of honey and white wine that I’d warmed together in my very authentically medieval microwave, before cooked them in the oven for 15 minutes.
They smelled lovely – of warm honey and fruit (because of the wine). They looked pretty appetising too; the blast in the oven had transformed them into golden brown crisps, shining in their sweet glaze.
And, truth be told, they still looked fairly similar to Galette des Rois. It was true they were smaller, but because the pastry was so thin to start with and because the frying process had caused it to puff up, it actually wasn’t too far off looking like puff pastry.
I was excited to try one and I wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was pretty pleasant: crisp, fairly rich and because it had been sitting in the pool of honey and wine during baking, also quite sweet.
Unlike Galette des Rois, the insides of Fry Blaunched didn’t taste of frangipane. They were pretty dry and a bit plain – just almond, really – without any sweetness. But that didn’t make the overall dish unpleasant. In fact, when an open pastry was dipped in the sticky honey and wine sauce, the almond mixture soaked it up which made for a sweet and nutty flavour.
Galette des Rois they might not have been (and they sure as hell weren’t Twelfth Night cakes) but as there won’t be any proper Twelfth Night celebrations this year (my family will have to shout at my sister via Zoom instead), perhaps they’ll be a good alternative.
Happy New Year!
50g or 2 ounces blanched almonds
1 medium egg
85g or 3 ounces plain white flour
20ml or 2 tablespoons runny honey
20ml or 2 tablespoons white wine
Oil for frying (any will do; I used olive)
- Set the oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F.
- Blitz your almonds until they are completely ground.
- Combine the egg and flour in a bowl and knead into a dough.
- Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to as thin as you can. It should be no thicker than 2mm.
- Cut the dough into strips, and then cut into squares – about 6cmx6cm.
- Put a small teaspoon of the ground almonds onto half of the pastry squares.
- Place the other half of the pastry squares over the squares with almonds on. Seal the sides shut – you will need to push them very tightly together or they will pop open during frying!
- Heat a shallow frying pan with oil and wait until a small piece of dough bubbles at the edges when dropped in.
- Fry no more than 2 at a time, turning over with a slotted spoon after a couple of minutes to cook on both sides. The pastry should puff up and go hard.
- When all your pastries are fried, lay them in a roasting tin or lipped baking tray.
- Heat the honey and wine together in a microwave or a pan until the honey has dissolved.
- Pour the honey and wine mixture over the pastries and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastries are a golden brown all over.