Though it has faded from memory a bit – 12th Night – occurring on January 5th and 6th was once a major holiday celebration in the UK. It marked the end of the holiday season, and the Epiphany, which in Christian tradition is the day when the three wise men arrived to see the newborn Jesus and bestow gifts upon him. Occurring 12 days after Christmas, Twelfth Night was one last night of feasting and merriment before the Christmas season was officially over.
One of the key treats of 12th Night is Wassail, a warm alcoholic punch with fortified wine, apples and warm holiday spices. Some recipes even include eggs, in the manner of eggnog. Wassailing also refers to the tradition of roving door to door and singing carols, including of course “Here we come A-Wassailing.” You can find a variety of recipes at Lavender and Lovage, Nourished Kitchen, or a more modern take at LA Weekly.
A Twelfth Cake is also a traditional food of the holiday – it is a basically a fruitcake with a dried in it – much like the trinket found in a Rosca des Reyes or Galette des Rois. The person who found the bean was then the king or queen for the day. Though the shape and form of the cake is not as codified as in some other cultures, 12th night cakes were increasingly elaborate by the end of the 19th century. Here are some historical 12th Night Cake recipes from the 1800s and an updated version from English Heritage.
Today is Three Kings Day / Epiphany – which officially marks the end of the Christmas holiday season! In addition to Epiphany (Epifania in Italian), the eve of January 6th is also when La Befana arrives in Italy. Similar to St. Nicholas Day in other parts of Europe, La Befana (who takes the appearance of a witch on a broom) leaves presents and candy for good children and coal for bad ones. In honor of La Befana and Epifania, we are heading to Sicily, where the holiday season is celebrated with a myriad of sweets including the fig and raisin-filled cuccidati cookies.
We have made cuccidati before, but we have recently learned that there is a similar holiday dessert that is basically a giant version of a cuccidati – a Buccellato ring cake. To add another layer of potential confusion, it seems that sometimes in Sicily buccellato refers to small-sized ring-shaped fig cookies, too. Now I am not really a huge fig or raisin fan (though M is) and even I like cuccidati cookies (which I guess are the distant ancestor of the Fig Newton). There are tons of cuccidati recipes with slight variations in filling according to region, family and personal taste so I will only include a few: A vintage Milwaukee recipe from 1965, Washington Post, Brown Eyed Baker and Savoring Italy (seen above). If you want to go all out, Cooking with Rosetta has a traditional buccellato recipe, as does L’Italo-Americano (seen below).
January 6th marks Three Kings Day (also known as 12th night or Epiphany) the official end to the Christmas holiday season. In the past, we have written about some of the most popular cakes eaten on this holiday: the French Galette des Rois and its classic Fèves, Portuguese Bolo Rei and the Spanish and Latin Amerian Rosca de Reyes. In Poland, there is also a special cake to ring in this holiday, the Ciasto Trzech Króli (Three Kings Cake). Similar to other Eurpean cakes, the Ciasto Trzech Króli is rich, filled with dried fruit, and topped with a decorative crown (recipe in English and photo from About.com here). Whoever finds the almond or coin baked into the cake gets to wear the crown!
Legend has it, if you find the toy inside the King Cake (or Gallette des Rois: recipe here) on Three Kings Day on January 6th, you become king or queen for the day. The classic king cake trinket in the US is a plastic or porcelain baby, though it was traditionally a fava bean (la fève in French). Now the term “la fève” has come to refer to any kind of trinket that may be found inside the cake, and may be any assortment of tiny characters, foods or animals (though some bakeries in the US are doing away with them altogether). There is something of a collectors market around particularly artistic or rare fèves, and their collectors are called “favophiles.” We came upon a particularly cute assortment of fèves at La Fournette bakery in Chicago, they may just entice us into becoming favophiles.
King Cake Fèves at La Fournette in Chicago
Galette des Rois at La Fournette in Chicago
King cake is commonly eaten on Epiphany, January 6th, and whoever finds the trinket (la fève) in the cake (sometimes ceramic, or sometimes edible, like a fava bean) is king/queen for a day. However, it is fashionable in Paris to serve it long after that, and perhaps this tradition holds in Chicago as well, since we still saw it on offer in Mid-January. The French Galette des Rois is made with puff pastry and filled with almond cream. David Lebovitz has a recipe to DiY, though we think it’s nicer to pick one up at the bakery (and the crown that goes with it).
The tradition of the “King Cake” spans continents, and is tied to the holiday of Epiphany celebrated on the 6th of January. One variety of sweet celebrating this day is the Bolo Rei of Portugal, and another variety is Rosca de Reyes from Mexico, a ring of sweet bread. Epiphany is known in Mexico as Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), lending the cake its name. Much like the other King Cake varieties, the Rosca de Reyes has a trinket inside, in this case a small porcelain (or plastic) Jesus figurine, the finder of which has to host a party on February 2nd, Candelmas. The Rosca de Reyes is more of a bread than a cake, and instead of frosting, the bread is topped with candied citrus and a bit of sugar. The size of the Rosca is dependent on the size of your party, so here is a recipe if you are expecting a crowd, or another if you would rather have more individual-sized rolls.
Rosca de Reyes for sale in Mexico City
Bolo Rei on display in Lisbon
In Portugal, one of the signals that the Christmas season has arrived is the arrival of the Bolo Rei (King Cake), a yeast-baked cake flavored with nuts and fruit and topped with a heaping helping of crystallized fruit. Eaten in Portugal until Kings Day (Jan 6), the Bolo Rei is nearly identical to the King Cake that is popular for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Like a King Cake, the Bolo Rei has a small trinket inside (traditionally a fava bean, but in more modern times, a charm), a practice which has now actually been outlawed (boo!).
The Confeiteria Nacional in Lisbon credits itself with introducing the Bolo Rei to Portugal in the 1800s. Throughout Portugal there are Bolo Rei being sold by every corner bakery, in all sizes. However, if you are not currently in Lusitania, there are many recipes available for Bolo Rei. Another Variation on the Bolo Rei is the Bolo Rainha – without crystallized fruit.