Eating cake, having a ball

Holiday: At Twelfth-Night festivals, Colonial America's equivalent of our New Year's Eve, guests would get slices of an elegant dessert and maybe good luck.

January 03, 2001|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

While many folks are into Day 6 of their annual after-the-holidays diet, a few others have yet to celebrate the last of the holidays, the Twelfth Night of Christmas.

Do you know about it? If not, here's a short review.

In the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the shepherds in the fields saw a star shining in the east. And the three wise men followed the star, bringing gifts to the newborn babe. Tradition says that the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem 12 days after Christmas, which on Western Christian calendars is Jan. 6. The celebration of their arrival is called Epiphany or, in secular words, Twelfth Night.

Twelfth-Night festivals had their heyday in Colonial America when it was the final bash in a dozen days of escalating merrymaking.

The equivalent of our New Year's Eve, it was most faithfully and traditionally observed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. The wealthy families in those states used it as an excuse to have a full-fledged dress-up ball. At the very least, there would be feasting, dancing and usually mumming or the re-enactment of popular stories based on Christmas themes in which the participants dressed in fantastic or comic costumes.

The Twelfth-Night balls were most often the equivalent of swinging-singles parties, attended by the young and unmarried. This was an annual opportunity for young men and women to socialize, flirt and make their moves. This sounds like a lot of pressure for one evening a year. Now or never; no risk, no reward; the do or die of singleness.

The Twelfth-Night Cake was instrumental in making the party a success. A large bean and/or a large pea were dropped into the batter of the cake before baking. Finding either one in your piece of cake meant perhaps a broken molar, but the certainty of good luck in the new year. The finders of the bean and pea might be chosen to lead charades and other parlor games designed to get the shy folks mingling and everyone having a good time. Dice and card games were popular. In fact, invitations to the balls were printed on blank playing cards. At the end of the games, a king and queen of the ball were chosen, and the dancing began.

The cake itself had many names - Twelfth-Night Cake, Christmas Cake, Plum Cake and Great Cake, all synonyms for, and variations of, plain old fruitcake. The difference is that there was considerable status associated with the height of the cake. The cake might be as high as 14 inches, must have weighed a ton and was usually surrounded by "bridesmaid" dishes - platters of orange fritters, wafers and jelly, crullers and fried pies.

The huge fruitcake was usually heavily iced and ornamented with elaborate sugar-work figures. Please have considerable awe and respect for the cook when you realize that sugar was expensive and scarce, and huge blocks of it had to be broken, whacked, pounded, ground and sifted before the sugar was in any form that could be used.

Nowadays, a French version of Twelfth-Night Cake survives in Louisiana, where it is known as Galette des Rois or King's Cake. The present one uses puff pastry, not fruitcake, and it's easily and quickly put together by the home cook.

Twelfth-Night festivals sound like a really swell time, don't they? In the interests of revival, try this simple, golden, flaky, pastry cake.

Twelfth-Night Cake

As golden as a crown, this simple but elegant cake celebrates Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. This version starts with ready-made puff pastry from the freezer case at the supermarket. For an alternate, super-simple filling, just open a 10-ounce jar of coffeecake filling, such as almond or date, and spread it over the pastry. For a surprise, poke a bean and/or a pea into the filling as lucky charms, but warn diners they're in the cake before they begin eating.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 (17.3-ounce) package frozen puff pastry (2 sheets)

1 (7-ounce) package almond paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon butter or margarine, melted

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon rum or rum flavoring

few drops almond flavoring

few drops vanilla

1 drop green food coloring

1 egg, for glaze

Defrost puff-pastry sheets according to package directions.

In blender or food processor, combine almond paste, sugar, melted butter, lemon zest, rum, almond flavoring, vanilla and green food coloring. The green coloring is pretty and keeps cake from being all one color.

Using 8-inch-round cake pan as a pattern, cut 2 circles of pastry with sharp knife. Place 1 pastry round on ungreased baking sheet. Spread filling to within 1 inch of edge. Add bean and/or pea as good-luck charm (diners need to be cautioned when eating). Place other sheet on top and press edges firmly to seal. With knife, cut top pastry sheet almost through to form diamond pattern. Cover cake with plastic wrap and chill two hours.

Just before baking, slightly beat egg and brush over top of cake to glaze. Bake at 375 degrees about 35 minutes or until dark golden. Cool. Cut into wedges to serve.

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