There’s a really good reason why this post is near the end and if you scroll down a little to see the pictures, you may begin to understand why. I’ve already touched a little bit on the British obsession with sugar, but my few examples of candy aren’t enough to give a clue to the absolute variety of British baked goods that tempt my sweet tooth every day. However much I love food, I REALLY love dessert and baking so when I came here I was curious to discover the English take on this craft. What I found was a world of sweet things that I never knew existed. But I had to take my tasting slow; one can only have so much cake, pastry crust, and cream in a single day. But now, I finally have a valid collection (though not nearly a full set) of British baking examples that I’ve been building up over the past three months. So grab a napkin because the descriptions and pictures to come may cause some severe drooling…trust me.
Actually dessert in general in England is called a pudding so, for instance, rather than getting a dessert menu, it’s a pudding menu. This will include anything from cake to pastry to custard and will NEVER include that Jell-O brand, fake chocolate stuff that we call pudding in the states. Although pudding is a broad category, there are some desserts in England specifically called puddings and are all generally all dense , steamed, boiled, or baked desserts, usually served with liquid custard sauce or ice cream. Some examples are bread and butter pudding, jam roly poly, and spotted dick, by my favorite by far is sticky toffee pudding.
This was that dessert that followed my aforementioned veggie burger and sweet potatoes fries at Mildred’s. It came as a square of super-moist steamed cake made with lots of brown sugar, treacle, and dates, and topped with a crystallized ginger compote, a thin tuile biscuit, and deliciously buttery and sticky toffee sauce. A lightly sweetened whipped cream came on the side and nicely cut through the heaviness of the pudding. It was so good that I really did eat it all by myself but, let’s be honest, could you possibly leave any of this on the plate? That’s what I thought.
I think I may have mentioned this, but the word dessert and the word pie rarely combine into the dessert that we Americans so fully embrace and enjoy. Here, a pie is for meat and gravy and mashed potatoes. If you want a sweet filling inside of piecrust, you ask for a tart. But something about the tart is actually a bit more appealing. It’s delicate and less heavy, due to its lack of upper crust, and it just feels more special to receive this dessert, cut into a pretty little triangle on a plate, rather that a gloopy pie oozing everywhere.
Two very popular English tarts are the Bakewell tart and treacle tart. The Bakewell tart is thought to have originated in the town of Bakewell in the Derbyshire region of the UK, but many say it was actually the Bakewell pudding (a similar but more custardy dessert) that did and the Bakewell tart is a poseur of this. Others, however claim that the two are essentially the same thing and the different name was used to distinguish classes. But anyway, although Bakewell pudding is eggier and more liquidy, it and the tart follow the same concept. A Bakewell tart starts with a base of shortcrust pastry and is topped with a layer of strawberry or raspberry jam and finally with an almond flavored sponge filling called frangipane. It’s baked until golden and soft. The fruity filling pairs nicely with the cherry-like flavors of the almond filling and, as far as cakes go, is so light and refreshing.
Treacle tart, however, is not quite as refreshing, though not any less delicious. Although it seems like Harry Potter enjoyed this dessert at least once a week, I wouldn’t recommend a taste more than twice a year. Essentially it’s a piecrust filled with a cooked combination of treacle (and English syrup like a combination of maple syrup and molasses), breadcrumbs, and egg. It’s like eating straight up sticky sugar and gives you that sick sugar coma afterwards where you lay on the floor holding your stomach…but you don’t really mind the side-effects when you remember the luscious sweet taste in the mouth.
Pastry and Buns
Although the English pride themselves on their highly savory and salty breakfasts that fill you with enough protein to last until late afternoon, they do make room for the sweeter side of breakfast, still very true to the English style. Rather than follow the French with their delicate flaky breakfast pastries like croissants, the British make their pastry filling and dense, bready and sweet. I’ve had a try of the Eccles Cake and Chelsea Bun and have found them quite enjoyable, though a little to rich to have on a daily basis. Eccles cakes come from the town of Eccles and are compromised of a crispy, buttery puff pastry filled with an enormous amount of sticky spiced raisins. It’s formed into a round shape, and for the finishing touches, it’s sprinkled with coarse sugar and two little vent holes are added. It’s even referred to as squashed fly cake due to the pitch-black filling. It’s commonly served with Lancashire cheese, don’t ask me why, but should only be consumed in small amounts…it’s truly filling.
Chelsea buns are very similar to sticky buns in the U.S., except a little less cinnamony. The bread is very yeasty and chewy and it’s filled with a brown sugar and butter syrup and raisins. It’s slightly different yet just as indulgent as the American counterpart and, heated in the oven for a few minutes, becomes the perfect pairing with morning coffee or tea. Other breakfast buns include the popular Bath buns and hot cross buns.
I have to admit that I’m a bit of a cake snob and I get really disappointed when I pay for a good-looking piece of cake only take a bite and find the driest and most flavorless of disasters in my mouth. So my search for British cakes was made twice as difficult when I had to find not only traditional British varieties but well-made ones too.
The most famous and iconic of all British cakes is the Victoria Sponge, most popularly served at traditional English teas and English summer picnics. This cake is named after Queen Victoria, who simply liked cake with her tea. It’s very similar to a vanilla sponge cake, but with a higher fat content and always contains two of the round cakes with jam and whipped cream or icing sandwiched between, hence the alternate name, the Victoria sandwich. I got my Victoria sponge at a higher end semi-chain restaurant in London called Canteen, which specializes in British food. I was really impressed and glad they used freshly whipped cream rather than sugary icing between the moist cakes, simply as a matter of preference.
But I was most happy when I finally discovered the best cakes in London, at little café called Bea’s of Bloomsbury. They specialize in fairy cakes, the English word for cupcakes, and I swear I’ve never have a moister, more flavorful cake. The frosting was light and fluffy too, more like whipped cream rather than the cloying powdered sugar concoctions I usually find. Although I’ve tried many of their cakes and enjoyed them all, my favorite has been another English type, Stem Ginger cake, which is actually found more commonly as a loaf cake. It was rich and molassesy with a slight burning spiciness from the preserved ginger and the mascarpone frosting was the delicious finishing touch.
I think it’s with this post above all others that, due to the high number of examples, I can hopefully really bring across the message of just how different British food is than ours. Though everything is largely compromised of the same ingredients that we use back home, things are combined in new ways here that are really inspiring. So, as a very avid baker, I can’t wait to take my London tasting experiences with baked desserts and give them a try when I return home so hopefully I can share this very memorable and unique part of my food journey with others and give them a taste of this wonderful culture.