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Recipes and Stories

5 January 2016: A Twelfth Night Curry

Twelfth Night Curry: a lovely way to bring Christmas to a close and warm a chilly January evening

If you’ve already tucked away your Christmas decorations and started your annual new years’ diet, that’s too bad: you’re missing out on Christmastide’s last hurrah, because today is actually the twelfth and last day of Christmas, historically speaking one of the season’s biggest days for feasting.

Commonly known as Twelfth Night or the Eve of Epiphany, it’s one of the great winter holiday traditions that has been largely lost to most Americans except in places like Louisiana, where it ushers in the lavish party-season of Carnival between the feast of the Epiphany and Lent.

There are varying traditions for marking Twelfth Night on the modern calendar—measuring it alternately from the twelfth night after Christmas Eve, making it January 4, to measuring it from the first day after Christmas (December 26), which would make it January 6. The more usual observance, however, was on the twelfth day after Christmas Day.

In Anglo-Colonial America (mainly the Eastern Seaboard), Twelfth Night was the season’s crowning feast. According to some accounts, founding father George Washington barely observed Christmas Day, but marked Twelfth Night by entertaining lavishly at Mount Vernon.

Possibly the reason that observing the twelve days of Christmastide and Twelfth Night has faded in our country is because our secularized Christmas season begins almost before the Halloween Jack-o-lanterns are extinguished, and the excesses that usually mark New Year’s Eve pretty much wear all of us out.

It’s a shame, really. One last holiday feast is the perfect way to warm a chilly January night before we settle into our “long winter’s nap.”

In the old days, front door wreaths and other seasonal decorations often contained fresh and preserved fruit and nuts. These were taken down and their edible elements were incorporated into the Twelfth Night feasting. It was all washed down with wassail, a heady punch of ale, wine, or hard cider (or all of the above).

Aside from nipping wassail and nibbling the decorations, however, the only distinctive food tradition for the holiday is a cake of some kind with a token of the infant Jesus buried inside it (a bean, coin, or metal or porcelain figure). The lucky diner who got the token was crowned king or queen of the feast.

But having almost no binding food traditions for the holiday is to my way of thinking actually a bonus: it means that our celebration can be kept with a feast of our own favorites.

A Twelfth Night Curry

Whether you call it Twelfth Night Cake, King’s Cake, or Gateau de Roi, every family who keeps the tradition has a favorite recipe for it, and for those who don’t, there are plenty of good recipes circulating without my adding to them. But here’s one of my own favorite savory main dishes that’s perfect for the celebration.

In Britain, spice is the order for Twelfth Night feasting, and a big dish of English-style curry actually seems perfect for the occasion: it’s quick and easy, yet elegant and very festive. While it’s more usually made with leftover roasted meat, poultry, or even ham, our Christmas Day roasts are by now long gone. So it’s good to know that it’s also lovely with sautéed chicken breasts or boned thighs, or, if you’re really pressed for time, a rotisserie chicken or ham steak from the market.

Serves about 8

½ cup Madeira or dry sherry
½ cup raisins, golden raisins, or currants
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
2 medium tart apples, cored and diced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2 medium cloves garlic, minced (to taste)
1-3 rounded tablespoons Madras curry powder (to taste)
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
4 cups diced cooked poultry (chicken, turkey, goose, or duck), ham, or roast pork or lamb
2 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley
8 cups cooked white rice

1. Pour the wine over the raisins and let them soak for half an hour. Put the onion, apple, and butter in a large, deep skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté, tossing and stirring, until the onion is golden and the apple is browning on its edges, about 5-8 minutes. Add the garlic and sprinkle in curry and stir until it’s smooth and fragrant, about a minute. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, until it’s bubbly and fragrant, about 2 minutes.

2. Slowly whisk in the milk and let it come to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer until thickened. Stir in the cream and let it come back to a simmer. Drain the raisins, reserving the wine, and add them to the sauce. Bring it back to a simmer, reduce heat, and simmer gently until it’s quite thick, 5-8 minutes.

3. Stir in the reserved wine, simmer 2-3 minutes, and then fold in the meat. Season lightly with salt and simmer until sauce is bubbly and the meat his hot through, about 5 minutes.

4. Taste and adjust the salt and curry, simmer half a minute longer, and then transfer to warm casserole or chafing dish and sprinkle with parsley and serve it with hot white rice. Or, ring a heated platter with rice and spoon the curry into the center, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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