On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
And a partridge in a pear tree. - Traditional Christmas carol
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas and tonight is Twelfth Night, traditionally celebrated with parties and feasting. It is the eve of the Epiphany, the day on which Christian myth holds the Magi arrived to give gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Because of this it was the custom in medieval times to exchange Christmas presents on that day, and Twelfth Night was the celebration preceding the exchange. Even after the gift exchange moved back to Christmas Day proper in the Renaissance, Twelfth Night continued to be celebrated as the transition between Christmastide and Carnival (which starts tomorrow), and in some countries children still receive their presents tonight (as we’ll see in tomorrow’s column). And though many Americans take down Christmas decorations by New Year’s Day, all good New Orleanians leave them up until Twelfth Night and remove them on Epiphany. In modern times a bit of confusion has arisen, so that many (especially in New Orleans) believe Twelfth Night to be the 12th night after Christmas rather than the 12th of Christmas, i.e. the night of January 6th. But whatever terminology one prefers, tomorrow is the first day of the Carnival season and today the last of Christmas.
Remember the old Saturnalia inversion of the social order we talked about before? In Christian times this portion of the festivities was shifted to Twelfth Night celebrations. The masters waited on their servants and everyone shared a cake which contained a bean; whoever got the bean became the Lord of Misrule, the ruler of the feast. This went on until midnight, when Christmas ended and the world returned to normal. But the cake survived and in France became much more elaborate; eventually the bean was replaced by a figurine of a baby representing the Christ Child. These cakes, called “king cakes”, are in New Orleans eaten throughout the Carnival season; every bakery in New Orleans sells them by the thousands at this time of year, and a few die-hards like myself bake our own. New Orleans king cake is actually a species of brioche, and as such is related to the German stollen and the Italian panettone; it is generally decorated with sugars of purple, green and gold, and whoever gets the baby must host the next king cake party. In offices, this tradition has devolved into “he who gets the baby buys the next king cake”, so as you can imagine a cheapskate might attempt to hide the fact that he found the tiny doll by shoving it into an uneaten piece when no one is looking, but if he is caught in the act considerable social censure results.
I’m sure at least SOME of you bake, and since you can’t buy a king cake in a grocery store outside Greater New Orleans I’ve decided to give you the recipe. Remember, you can ONLY eat this cake between tomorrow (January 6th) and Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday), which falls this year on March 8th. If you can’t find a plastic baby, just use a bean as they did in the Middle Ages. I’m afraid all of my measurements are Imperial, so international readers will have to convert; in the US butter is typically sold in pounds, with each stick equal to ¼ pound, but I have seen half-size sticks in California so please check your carton carefully. DO NOT use margarine; modern margarines are an emulsion of oil and water with very different chemical properties from real butter and the yeast will not rise properly if you substitute. Since the dough must sit overnight, you’ll have to start your cake this evening if you wish to serve it tomorrow.
4¾ cups flour
1 cup sugar (divided usage)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 packages rapid-rise yeast
¾ cup milk
½ cup water
½ cup (1 stick) butter
2 large eggs
¼ cup (½ stick) melted butter (used on second day)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (used on second day)
1 recipe powdered sugar glaze (see below)
Colored sugars (see below)
1) In a large bowl, combine 1½ cups of the flour, ¼ cup sugar, and yeast. In a small saucepan heat the milk, water, butter and salt until very warm and butter is almost completely melted; DO NOT omit the salt, because the yeast needs it to grow. Add the milk mixture to the dry mixture and beat on medium speed of an electric mixer for two minutes, then add the eggs and another ½ cup of flour and beat on high for two minutes (I always sing to the yeast to encourage it to grow, but I’m silly that way). Stir in the remaining flour, then cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (8-24 hours).
2) Punch dough down and remove it to a lightly floured work surface, then combine the cinnamon with the remaining sugar and mix well. Divide the dough into three equal pieces and roll each into a 28” long by 4” wide strip (I find it easier to roll it into a 14” x 8” strip, then cut it lengthwise and join the pieces end to end). Brush the rectangle with a third of the melted butter, sprinkle evenly with a third of the cinnamon-sugar mixture and roll it up tightly to form a long rope; don’t forget to put your baby or bean at a random spot on one of the rectangles before rolling it up. You’ll probably need to pinch and manipulate the ropes a little to get the edges to seal. Braid the three ropes together, then bring the ends together and pinch to join them so the cake is an oval. Carefully transfer to a greased baking sheet (I find it’s easier to do the braiding on the sheet) and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for one hour.
3) Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 to 30 minutes (finished cake will sound hollow when tapped). Carefully free cake from sheet and slide it cautiously to a wire rack to cool; meanwhile prepare colored sugars and powdered sugar glaze. When cake has cooled slightly spread the glaze over it and then sprinkle the colored sugars on as in the picture; there is no way to do this without making a huge mess so you may as well just enjoy it.
Colored sugars: For each color place ¼ cup of sugar into a Tupperware-type sealable container, add food coloring, seal container and shake vigorously (make sure you use a container with a trustworthy lid!) For green sugar use 4 drops of green food coloring, for gold use 4 drops of yellow, and for purple use 4 drops of blue and 8 of red. Unused sugars will keep indefinitely if sealed tightly in a cool, dark place.
Powdered sugar glaze: Combine two cups of sifted powdered (confectioner’s) sugar and two or three tablespoons of milk; stir until smooth and use immediately.
Don’t forget to start the cake the night before you plan to serve it to company; the rolling and braiding may sound complicated but actually takes only about half an hour. This cake is best enjoyed in good company with a tall glass of cold milk or a large cup of strong, hot café au lait.
Since most of your friends probably don’t bake and king cakes probably aren’t commercially available where you live, you’ll have to start your own tradition about the baby or bean; just make sure it’s something fun and in the spirit of hospitality. And if any of my English readers has a recipe for wassail (a traditional punch drunk throughout Christmastide and especially tonight), please feel free to share it!