Day 10: Twelfth Night Cake & King Cake

I was tricked. Tricked I say! I wanted to write about the King Cake, which I thought was totally a Christmas, like December 25th Christmas, thing. But it’s not! I was hoodwinked!

King Cake

It kinda is though. The King’s Cake is the American name for the Twelfth Night Cake, which is eaten on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, also known as the Epiphany. It’s also known as Gâteau de Rois (France), Dreikonigskuchen (Germany/Bavaria), the Black Bun (Scotland), King Cake (US, specifically Louisiana), Bola-Rei (Portugal), and Rosca de Reyes (Spain/Mexico). So you see, this cake is all over the place.

Gâteau de Rois

Rather than write about one or the other, I put together a sort of joint post. This makes it very informative, but also very long. But seriously, you’ll learn something.

Rosca de Reyes

The Twelfth Night Cake is, obviously, an important part of the Twelfth Night celebration, which commemorates the Three Wise Men/Magi/Kings that visit baby Jesus on the 12th night after he was born. The Twelfth Night Cake tradition began in the Middle Ages. However, the celebration of Twelfth Night has its roots in an ancient Roman festival called Saturnalia.

Where everyone got naked and danced! (I couldn't find the artist or title. If anyone knows it, tell me.)

It was a pre-Christian harvest and winter solstice celebration that was held throughout the Roman Empire. It celebrated Saturn or Saturnus, the god of agriculture, and the king of Rome’s Golden Age. During the festival, whoever found the single bean in a special galette (flat, round, crusty cake) became the king of the festival.

There was lots of drinking and food! Saturnalia by Antoine François Callet (1741-1823)

The bean may seem trivial now, but in ancient times it was a sacred vegetable. The flamen dialis (high priest of Jupiter) was not allowed to eat beans or even say the word “bean.” Another story tells of the philosopher Pythagoras running from a host of rebels. He came upon a field of beans that he had to cross in order to escape his pursuers. Yet, he didn’t run across the field for fear of crushing the plants and was captured instead. The bean was not something to be taken lightly. So finding a bean in a cake was, in fact, quite exciting.

Pythagoras: "NO! I would rather be caught than trample these precious beans! My life is nothing compared to them!" Pursuers: "We can make that happen."

I know. It totally doesn’t sound it.

In any case, the tradition of electing a mock king carried over to the Middle Ages in the form of the Twelfth Night King. He was called the Lord of Misrule, and presided over all the festivities with his accomplice, the boy bishop. All in attendance were subject to the mock king’s “ludicrous fancies.” It was a way of celebrating the end of the Christmas season. People masqueraded, danced, cross-dressed, and gambled. By the time Edward II came to reign in 1284-1327, the mock king was being called the King of the Bean because of how he was chosen and the cake was just a way to continue the old custom of mock rulers.

"Twelfth Night King Drinks" by David Teniers, the Younger

Every Twelfth Night cake contained at least one bean. Really, the object could be anything (pea, coin, nut, etc.) but the bean was the most traditional option. The finder of the bean was the King and he was given the opportunity to choose his queen. However, in some places the cake also included a pea. The finder of the pea became the Queen while the finder of the bean became the king. If the woman found the bean, she could choose her own king, and vice versa with the pea. The king and queen could direct others to do their bidding for the rest of the night. Sometimes a clove would be baked into the cake as well and the recipient would be the jester. This particular tradition originated around the 16th century.


There is a poem by a man named Robert Herrick commemorating the Twelfth Night Cake ritual:

I would totally date this guy.


NOW, now the mirth comes

With the cake full of plums,

Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;

Beside we must know,

The pea also

Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,

This night as ye use,

Who shall for the present delight here,

Be a king by the lot,

And who shall not

Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make

Joy-sops with the cake ;

And let not a man then be seen here,

Who unurg’d will not drink

To the base from the brink

A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full

With gentle lamb’s wool :

Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,

With store of ale too ;

And thus ye must do

To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king

And queen wassailing :

And though with ale ye be whet here,

Yet part from hence

As free from offence

As when ye innocent met here.

Another David Teniers the Younger Twelfth Night scene.

The cake made then was very similar to the cake made now. Some cakes contained honey, flour, ginger, and pepper while English cakes had raisins in it. During the Renaissance, the cakes became works of art and could be quite large. Often when the cake was cut, one portion was reserved for God, another part for the Virgin Mary, and three other parts for the Magi. These were the portions that were given to the poor who came knocking that day.

This practice went on almost everywhere in Europe by almost everyone. There are plenty of stories about it. In the 13th century at the monastery in Mont-St.-Michel, a king was chosen from the monks by placing a number of cakes in front of them. One contained a bean hidden in it. The monk who got that particular cake spent Matins, High Mass, and Vespers sitting on a special throne. In 1563, Mary Queen of Scots had a Twelfth Night Cake at the palace of Holyrood. Her maid, Mary Fleming, found the bean in the cake and was dressed in the queen’s own clothes for the rest of the day. Then, in 1795, a pastry cook turned actor named Robert Baddeley left money in his will specifically to “Provide cake and wine for the performers in the green room of Drury Lane Theatre on Twelfth Night” (Muir 101). The theatre still celebrates the cutting of Baddeley’s Cake today. Then in 1849, Queen Victoria had a Twelfth Night Cake that was so large that The Illustrated London News reported it was 30 inches around and proportionally as tall.

Queen Victoria's Twelfth Night Cake, from The Illustrated London News

The picking of the king was most popular in France. There, the cake is called Gâteau de Rois and was first mentioned in the early 1300’s. There are several accounts of how people picked kings. According to 16th century writer, Etienne Pasquier, the cake was cut into as many pieces as there were guests. A small child was placed under the table (weird) and questioned by the cake cutter as if he was one of Apollo’s young oracles. The cake cutter addressed the child as Phebé (Phoebus). The child answered the questions with one Latin word: Domine, meaning, “lord” or “master.” Then the cake cutter asked the child whom he should give the piece of cake in his hand, and the child would yell out a name of a person sitting at the table. This would continue until there were no more pieces left. Whoever had the piece with the bean would be king.

In Berry, the cake was cut into as many portions as there were guests plus one more. The youngest member of the family distributed the pieces. The remaining piece is called la part du bon Dieu and is given to the first person that asks for it, which is usually a group of children with a leader. The leader sings a short song and is given the piece. Again, whoever finds the bean becomes king and would be dressed in full robes as well as given a fool to entertain him. Shots were fired whenever he drank.

In Salers, the position of the king and queen was auctioned off at the church door. The two would preside over the festival, sit in places of honor in the church, and were the first to go in the procession through the town. It was a much-desired position and people would spend oodles of money to get it, including their inheritance.

Church in the village of Salers

An account of a picking in the 19th century in Lorraine differs again slightly. The night before the Epiphany, lots were cast to choose the king. Once he was chosen, he would also choose his queen. They would have a place of honor at the table and every time they raised their glasses to drink, the entire table yelled “The king drinks!” or “The queen drinks!” On the day of the Epiphany, a large cake was divided into equal portions and distributed by the youngest boy in the party. The first portion was always for le bon Dieu, the second portion for the Virgin Mary (these two portions were reserved for the poor), and then pieces were given to the relations, servants, and visitors. Whoever found the bean was the king and if it were a woman, she would choose her king. The king would invite everyone to a feast the following Sunday, when they would make black kings by rubbing burnt cork on their faces.

I couldn’t find an explanation for that. Believe me, I looked.

Becoming the King of the Bean was such an important event that it spawned a saying: Il a trouvé la fève au gateau, meaning “he has found the bean in the cake.” It’s what people would say of someone with good luck. There was also some controversy surrounding it in the late 18th century.

In 1792, French Revolutionaries decided to stop the selling of “King Cakes” because they didn’t go along with the Republican sentiment they were trying to push. In Bordeaux, they changed the name of the cake to “cake of liberty” or “cake of equality” and Epiphany had all it’s religious connotations removed. It was instead celebrated as La Fête des Sansculottes (the festival of the revolutionary working class). In Paris on Christmas eve in 1794, the mayor ordered all pastry cooks to be arrested because of their “liberticidal tendencies” when all they were trying to do was celebrate Twelfth Night with the traditional cake.

In the 19th century, there was another slight change in tradition. One could buy a set of cards when picking up the Twelfth Night Cake from the baker. The cards contained a set of court characters to go along with the king and queen. Once the king and queen had been discovered, a hat was passed around with all the cards and everyone would pick one, getting their character for the evening. At first, characters were famous historical people or heroes from stories and legends. By the time the tradition had begun to die out, there were specific characters invented for the game. They had names like Sir Tunbelly Clumsy and Sir Gregory Goose.

Park's New Twelfth Night Characters from 1843

One of the most exciting parts of Twelfth Night and the cake was the opportunity to act as someone else and have fun while doing it, with little scrutiny or consequence. With the cards, everyone was given the chance to be someone else for a change.

Twelfth Night Characters from the 1858 The Illustrated London News

Similar Epiphany kings and cakes can be found in Holland and Germany. The German Dreikönigskuchen is encased in a gold paper crown. There’s also the King of the Bean in Italy, but there is no Twelfth Night Cake or king in Eastern Europe. The closest tradition they have is a New Year’s cake called the St. Basil’s Cake.


One example of this tradition would be on New Year’s Eve in Macedonia, a shortbread was made with a silver coin and a cross of green twigs in it. The mother and father take the cake and break it into two pieces. Those pies are then cut up into slices. The first piece was for St. Basil; the second for the Holy Virgin or the patron saint whose icon was in the house; the third was for the cattle and domestic animals; and the fourth was for inanimate property. The rest went to the family. They dipped their cake in wine and whoever found the cross or coin in their piece of cake would be prosperous in the coming year. The coin was considered sacred and used to buy a votive taper. At the end of the dinner, the table was moved to the corner of the room so St. Basil, who represents all the departed loved ones, could partake of the feast.

A Greek St. Basil's Cake

Modern Twelfth Night Cakes don’t differ much from their Middle Ages predecessors. It’s virtually the same recipe, which originates with the ancient Arabs. France has several different types depending on region. In Lyon and Paris, the cake is a puff-pastry galette, sometimes filled with frangipane. In the south of France the cake is like a brioche, decorated with crystalized fruit or flavored with brandy or orange-flower water. In Provence and Auvergne, it’s a crown shaped brioche, and in Bordeaux and Limoux, it’s flavored with citron. In some places, the bean has been replaced by a china figure of a baby or animal.

A modern adaptation of the 19th century Twelfth Night Cake

The Mexican version of the Epiphany cake is the Rosca de Reyes. A small figure representing the Christ Child is baked into the ring shaped cake. Whoever finds it has to host a party on El Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on February 2nd.  In areas that were settled by Spanish missionaries (Mexico, South America, Florida, California) they eat Rosca de Reyes.

The Twelfth Night Cake has a different name in United States. It’s called the King Cake and is best known in Louisiana. There, the cakes are eaten from Twelfth Night through to Mardi Gras and officially end on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In 1871, organizers of Mardi Gras celebrations picked their queens using the Twelfth Night Cake method. This stuck, and every year the queen is chosen the same way.

The cake is decorated with icing dyed purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Rex Krewe, a parade organizer, chose the colors in 1872 for that year’s festival. The colors stuck and have been that way ever since. Traditionally, the cake contains one red bean, sometimes covered in gold or silver leaf, and a tiny figurine of baby Jesus. Sometimes it’s just one or the other. Whoever finds the object is promised good luck for the rest of the year and has to hold the King Cake party next Epiphany.

The King Cake’s history has it’s roots in Creole tradition. The Spanish and French who settled in Louisiana combined their cake traditions, so that the Twelfth Night Cake was served on January 6th, the day that the Spanish celebrated their King’s Day, Le Jour des Rois. Gifts were given on King’s Day in memory of the gifts the Wise Men gave. The Creoles called it le petite noël (little Christmas) and still celebrate it. They also adopted the Spanish custom of throwing large, lavish balls that night when a king and queen were chosen for that week. There were festivities every night until Ash Wednesday and it became the Carnival season.

1884 Invitation to Twelfth Night Revelers, the second-oldest Carnival krewe.

Every week after there would be another party where a new king and queen would be chosen. A large feast would be held in one of the manors of the wealthier families. Choosing the king was done by cutting the King Cake, a huge, ring shaped cake made of brioche batter that was decorated with bonbons, dragees, caramels, and whatever else they felt like. When the clock hit midnight, everyone would be seated around the table and the cake was brought in and was cut into as many slices and there were guests. Each slice of cake was covered with a napkin after being cut. This was a precaution in case the person slicing the cake had accidentally hit the inserted object and had to move the knife over to recut.

Guests ate their cake while drinking champagne, until someone found the trinket, which was more often than not a brilliant diamond ring (COOKED INTO A CAKE, WHAT!?). If a lady found the item, she would choose her king by giving him a bouquet of violets (which was always provided with the cake). If it were a man, he would have all the ladies take a turn round the parlor, which was called le tour du salon. The ladies would walk while he watched and chose his queen. He’d give the flower in his lapel to the lady of his choosing and, if it happened to be a ring in the cake, he would give her that too. Which is cool. Ya know. To just give out huge diamond rings.

"Hey, where'd you get that gorgeous ring?" "Oh, I found it in a cake, no big deal."


After the king and queen had been chosen, a grand ball was given at the home of the queen. The king was expected to cover all expenses, regardless of whether or not he found the bean or was chosen by his queen. During the course of the week he would also present the queen with some jewels, which is where the custom of Carnival kings giving queens jewels comes from. This was repeated every week until Ash Wednesday.

Every. Week.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevery week.

The finder of the object was considered very lucky. If it happened to be a bean and had been found by the lady, she would cut it in two and give half to her king. If the man found the bean, it was kept as a talisman. Old Creole families kept their beans as a reminder of those wonderful times.


Before the Civil War in America, the cakes often held gold, diamonds, or other valuables instead of beans. After the war, peas, beans, pecans, or coins were used. NO MORE DIAMOND RINGS FOR YOU!

That’s the sort of long winded history of the Twelfth Night Cake.

I need to go to sleep.

Keep eating and *yaaaaawn* asking, my friends.



-Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. 54-55. Print.

-Herrick, Robert. Works of Robert Herrick. vol II. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 145-146.

-Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs & Traditions. New York: Taplinger Pub., 1977. 100-02. Print.

-Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. 337-41. Print.

-Crump, William D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. 112. Print.

-Bowler, G. Q. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 78+. Print.

-Robuchon, Joël, and Prosper Montagné. Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2009. 1110-111. Print.

-Olver, Lynne. “Christmas Food History.” Food Timeline: Food History & Vintage Recipes. Lynne Olver. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <>.

-Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Novel Entertainments for Every Day in the Year. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1907. 5-7. Print.

Photos, in order of appearance:




























10 thoughts on “Day 10: Twelfth Night Cake & King Cake

  1. Mischelle40 says:

    This is a wonderful definition of the history of king cake. Our family lived in France for 3 years, and each year were invited to a celebration where the cake was presented. It is much as you said, and does depend on the region. The cake we were presented with was created with much like a croissant dough sweetened and glazed with might be honey? Not sure of what it was glazed with. There was a baby or other tiny figure in each cake, and the person who found it in their slice was king (or queen). In the area I was in, the youngest child would hide under the table, then tap the leg of the person chosen to get the first slice of cake. I don’t know exactly why this was, but I assume it is a derivitive of the youngest child passing out the cake, as you mentioned.

    Anyway, thanks so much for writing this. It is a tradition we brought back with us, and fortunately, our local grocery makes king cakes, so it is easy to keep up with the traditions.

  2. John J. Dunphy says:

    I think you’d enjoy reading my book “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.” The residents of Prairie du Rocher, a village in my region’s French Colonial District, throw a Bal des Roix on the Saturday nearest Twelfth Night. One year I was the second man to find a bean in my slice of the Kings Cake and so became first runner-up to the king. La Guiannee has been sung in Prairie du Rocher on every New Year’s Eve since 1720!

  3. Rolonda R. Mayer says:

    Loved the story. I’m from New Orleans. I study history, religion and mythology, Design costumes art and parades. Especially Carnival Season and Mardi gras Day. I received an award for my Oil Spill protest parade, a funeral second line for the death of the Gulf of Mexico.
    The reason the selected King of the Bean might have donned black face is si.ply because traditionally one of the 3 wise Men whose visit Twelfth Night commemorates was black. Look at you Manger sets. One of the 3 guys is always black!

    • Esther Martin-Ullrich says:

      That’s very interesting! One day I plan to go back through these posts and update them, now that I’ve experienced grad school and truly understand how to do research. I’ll make sure to double check this!

      Thanks so much for reading!

  4. woofers53 says:

    Black Bun isn’t a King cake. it is eaten at Christmas and New Year (Hogmanay) in Scotland. It is basically a rich fruit cake in a pastry crust.

    • Esther Martin-Ullrich says:

      You are correct, black bun isn’t a king cake, but it is a Twelfth Night cake. Twelfth Night generally falls on January 6, after Hogmanay. It’s possible that when Twelfth Night lost importance as a holiday, the tradition of eating and offering black bun was turned into a Hogmanay tradition instead. I would have to do further research to confirm my suspicion, though.

      Thank you so much for reading and your comment!

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