My So-Called Pilgrim Life

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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

Twelfth Night Cake

January 13th, 2009 by admin

“Dost thou thinke because thou art vertuous, there shall be no more Cakes
and Ale
Shakespeare, William. Twelfe Night, or, What you will. Act II, scene 3.

Christmas wasn’t just a day in the seventeenth century, it was twelve! And
the evening of the last day was the begin of Misrule, where a bean found in
a piece of cake would determine who would be king. It was a world upside
down, which seems to be another way to say far too much drinking. In Plimoth
in the first years of the colony they had nothing to drink but water, so
drunkenness seems to have been kept to a minimum. They had planted barley
(to make malt for beer) but it grew “indifferent good”. And turning the
ground over by hand for barley is a great deal of work. In 1623 some of the
newcomers of the Anne and James complained about the lack of beer in
Back to cake – this Twelfth Night cake tradition continues. In New Orleans
they make King Cake, which is a cake made with yeast, has a bean hidden
inside and has icing colored green, purple and yellow. The saffron in this
cake will give it a yellow color.

To make spice cakes.
To make excellent spice cakes, take half a peck of very fine wheat flour;
take almost one pound of sweet butter, and some good milk and cream mixed
together; set it on the fire, and put in your butter, and a good deal of
sugar, and let it melt together: the strain safron into your milk a good
quantity; then take seven or eight spoonfuls of good ale barm, and eight
eggs with two yolks and mix them together, then put your milk to it when
somewhat cold, and into your flour put salt, aniseeds bruised, cloves, and
mace, and a good deal of cinnamon: then work all together good and stiff,
that you need not work in any flour after; then put in a little rose-water
cold, then rub it well in the thing you knead it in, and work it thoroughly;
if it be not sweet enough, scrape in a little more sugar, and pull it all in
pieces, and hurl in a good quantity of currents, and so work all together
again, and bake your cake as you see cause in a gentle warm oven.”        -
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife, Best, ed. p. 115.

Notes on spice cake:
A peck is sixteen pounds, so a half peck is eight pound. If you figure
(roughly) one pound of flour (modern, all purpose, from the grocery store)
is about three and a half cups to the pound, that’s a whopping 28 cups of
flour. That’s a lotta cake! I’ll break it down for a quarter batch:

7 cups flour
1 stick (1/4 pound) of butter, preferably unsalted
yeast, 2 packages (this takes the place of the ale barm although if you have
ale barm, go ahead and use it – and then call me to share some!)
2 eggs and 1 yolk
sugar (maybe a half cup)
saffron, a few threads
milk (use about a cup to soak the saffron in)
salt (about a teaspoon)
aniseeds, crushed
spices: cloves, mace, cinnamon
rosewater (This is the flavoring, there’s no vanilla this early on. If you
don’t have food grade rosewater [available in our Gift Shops!] consider
anise extract over vanilla).
1 or 2 cups of raisins (sometimes cakes have as much fruit as dough by

Preheat your oven to 375.
If you have a baking stone (one that you probably use for pizza) you could
bake the cake right on that. Or you can bake it in a greased casserole dish.
Or you could bake it in two greased cake pans.
Melt the butter in the milk. Add the saffron and put aside. Add the yeast to
1/2 cup of warm water. Let dissolve completely, about 4 minutes. It will
look thick.
Take you flour and add the sugar, salt, aniseeds, cloves, mace and cinnamon.
Beat the 2 eggs and the egg yolk into the now cooled milk. Add 1/2 cup
cream. Add this liquid, as well as the dissolved yeast into the flour
mixture. Beat it well. Now you have to use your judgment – is there enough
spice (does it smell good to you? Do you want some more cinnamon? Maybe a
little more sugar? Does it need more liquid – I’d go for the richness of the
cream,,,, It should pretty well hold together as a piece, more doughy then a
batter bread, softer then ordinary bread dough.
Add your flavoring – a teaspoon, and if that’s not enough for you, then
another. Keep kneading it. Starting to feel the texture get more velvety?
It’s almost cake.
Hurl in your raisins!  You may have to take smaller lumps and work the
raisins in. All of this handling is helping the gluten to form, and you
really get to work out your arms!
Form it into a ball (or two, depending on how you’re going to bake it).
Put it in the oven and turn the oven down to 350. This is the falling oven
effect that a wood fired oven would have. Check it after 45 minutes. If the
top is getting very brown (which it might, depending on how much sugar you
used) drop the heat to 325. After an hour look to see that it is risen and
golden brown, then thump in the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow. If it is
still sqiggy or otherwise not done, keep it in and keep checking it. I let
my nose tell me – it smells not wet.
Let it cool (and pick off any burnt raisins) before you enjoy.

Kathleen M. Wall
Colonial Foodways Manager
Plimoth Plantation

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7 Responses to “Twelfth Night Cake”

  1. Shelley-Jo says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. The spice cake at the Hicks/Bangs wedding was delicious and I will definately attempt this receipe. On another note, I broke out my Laurel’s Kitchen to give to you in thanks for the wonderful Soup Kitchen meal (I think there should be a post about this commraderie)but I had to be selfish when I noticed that my son (now 28) had scribbled in some of the pages and I can’t give a up a treasure like that.

  2. KMW says:

    Shelley Jo,
    Thanks for being brave enough to try the cake, although it always helps to know what you want the end result to taste like before you begin. The ‘pick put the burnt raisins’ is a trick I learned from “The French Chef”. Until Julia said it out loud I could never figure out how bakery raisin bread had no burnt raisins and my homemade raisin bread always did.
    If your son has scribbled in a cookbook, you have a volume of heirloom recipes, so of course they go to him! Good for you for feeding him so well in his youth that he wants to go back there in his adulthood.
    As for the shared dining experiences, it’s part of foodways too, not just the food, so, yes, I’ll be posting on that soon, too. That’s why I’m a foodways culinarian and not a food historian; I love all the the ‘ologies’around the food!
    See you soon – KMW

  3. admin says:

    I agree about posting about camaraderie, how about you write one up?


  4. Stacy says:

    Thanks for the recipe Kathleen. I’ve been mostly recovering at home and trying all these new recipes so that’s one more!

    And I second Buddy’s response.


  5. Justin says:


    This morning I baked a version of Markham’s cake. I’ve been thinking about it and ‘foodways’ all day. (Thinking=eating of course). Most of my cooking over the winter has been variations on the sorts of things we cook in the village. I made a bagged pudding of oats the other day to rave reviews, and a tansy-like thing, and peas pottage. Each one has had a story to tell, though to me, the cake speaks the most. It has this whole host of emotions with it. To me, it’s the taste of joy and sorrow as it so often accompanies weddings and funerals in the village. It’s the taste of hospitality, being so often one of the foods we offer visitors, (which in turn means it only tastes right if cut into little inch and a half cubes). It’s the taste of victory and deception, recalling day number five (or six?) after one of those special events when everything’s back to normal, but somehow one of us has managed to save and ration a slab of cake and butter and kept it safe from rodents.

    And supervisors.

    It triggers music to me. Sounds weird, but whenever I think of ground spices, all that I can think of is the chorus of Ravenscroft’s “All the Birds”, the “Cinnamint and Ginger, Nutmegs and Cloves,” line, and all the people I’ve sung that with. Makes me wonder what connections cake had for people in the 17th century. Beyond the intangible this cake even has real physical connections to other people. The leaven that raised the whole thing came from Paula. And when I was about to put it together I had to look back here at your notes, and suddenly, you were in my kitchen too.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that we could tell the whole story at Plimoth through food. I don’t know why we bother with all the rest.

    Ending now, before my comment gets larger than your recipe.



  6. KMW says:

    Stacy – Thanks for trying things out – kjeep us posted as to how they turn out! KMW

  7. KMW says:

    Justin – Sometinme I think the whole emphasis on Thanksgiving and “The Pilgrim Story” is an attempt to tell the story in food. I’ve been playing around with Indian puddings – for Plimoth Cinema, which I dare say is the ONLY cinema that offers Indian Pudding – but it intrigues me how many writers put Indian pudding on the first thanksgiving table, as well as popcorn..which of course, they weren’t really there, unless everything in the past happen in the same moment. And bag puddings – well you sweet thing, did you do the one with freah herbs or the one that is a boiled oatmeal raisin cookie?
    There’s someone at MIT who has been studying taste and memory – I could try to paraphrase him,but I think I’ll look him up and share what he says about taste and memory. Cake is what I call ‘occasional food’ – food you have for a specific occasion. Nowadays we want to have all the special stuff all the time, but even in my grandmothers day some things, food things, said Christmas or Birthday or Wedding or even Wake, just like signposts for the occasion.
    If I told you the food song that keeps running through my head is “Come Fly With Me’ would that be a hint of my training lecture topic?

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