Small Pleasures

This is a very good sign...

The BBC has got me thinking about baking cakes this week, specifically the programme “More or Less” on Radio 4, on which economist Tim Harford talks in a lighthearted way about “numbers in the news and in life”, treating topics from whether we can trust statistics rattled off by politicians, to the odds of buying a carton of 6 eggs (UK: box of 6 eggs, though their box and our carton are identical pressed-paper shapes) and finding that they all have double yolks.  “More or Less” recently asked people to contact them with cake recipes that had some numerical interest, no matter how tenuous the connection, so I told them about the common American pound cake.  And they were interested enough to ring me up and tape me over the phone for their podcast.

It's Christmas all year round at the local bakery.

You don’t get pound cake here; the UK’s version is called Madeira cake, which tastes very like pound cake, but—I assumed—would be made with Madeira, a sweet wine.  I figured they must use that instead of vanilla or something. When will I learn not to assume anything where culture or tradition are involved?  Madeira cake is pound cake by another name, and its British name comes from an earlier century in which it was fashionable to serve it with a small glass of Madeira alongside.

Christmas cakes at the Christmas bakery, that is, they are Christmas's Christmas cakes.

But what makes a pound cake a pound cake?  Traditionally the recipe called for one pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs.  (Yes, you weigh the eggs.)  But since that would make an enormous cake (or more likely, several regular-size cakes), any cake is called a pound cake as long as you adhere to that all-important and beautifully symmetrical ratio—1:1:1:1—for the main ingredients.

Living here, you learn that a cake can mean anything from an extravagant multiple-tiered sculpture to little individual goodies I’d call sweet rolls, and even things that aren’t cake at all in my view, like gingerbread men or custard tarts.  When the head of a social group asked me , not long after I moved to the UK, to bring “a few cakes”–plural–to a meeting, I wondered whether she could possibly mean that she wanted me to come up with several 2-layer, 9-inch, iced cakes.  Answer?  She didn’t.  She meant the kinds of little treats that I will tell you about below.

Because I have, at great personal sacrifice, gone to a popular bakery nearby and filled a tray with one of everything that would fit, so as to introduce you to British cakes.

A Yule log, which is yet another kind of cake eaten at Christmas. This is a very fancy one; it even has a branch. And you can just see, on the right, some rum truffles--decorated to look like miniature Christmas puddings.

It’s just lucky that the nearest bakery has a name that coincides with the season: the sign may say “Rickford Bakery”, but people call it the Christmas bakery, as it’s run by J. A. Christmas and Sons.  I’ve never seen a man behind the counter, though; maybe the men are in the back with the ovens.  The ladies who do work behind the counter are kept on the run, because the place is always so busy, especially at lunchtime—since in addition to cakes they bake Cornish pasties and sausage rolls and curry-filled pastries, and make sandwiches on their own freshly baked rolls—that getting in and out of the car park (US: parking lot) is a cross between a sliding-tile puzzle and a fairground Dodge’ems ride.  When I left today, two cars wanted my parking space; for all I know there was an episode of bakery rage after I left.

Inside the Christmas bakery

This time of year they do a brisk business in Christmas cakes (a treat I’ve written about before), and there’s a photo here of their display.  You’ll have to take my word for that the Christmas bakery offers cream horns, fudge brownies, lardy cakes, jam tarts, rum truffles, and a host of other things that won’t be in my photos, because I couldn’t actually buy one of everything in the shop.  But I can tell you about the ones I did buy (they’re identified in the captions of the pictures):

Iced buns: Kids in British books always seem to be eating iced buns, which sound wonderful.  But as you’ll soon see, traditional British treats tend to be very simple, without a lot of cherries or almonds or sweetened cream cheese or the kinds of things I’m used to seeing at bakeries in the US; there isn’t even a lot of chocolate or cinnamon.  And an iced bun is just that: a bun about the size of a hotdog bun, with a smear of sugary icing on top.  It’s very good quality bread, much, much better than a hotdog bun, but still…it’s just iced bread, though iced buns seem to be really popular.

On the left, from back to front, we've got an iced bun and a filled doughnut; in the next 'column', also from back to front, you see shortbread, an iced Chelsea bun, and a jam doughnut; in the next row, a sugared Chelsea bun, a flapjack, and a vanilla slice

Doughnuts: It is difficult to find a canonical doughnut-with-a-hole in England, except in American chains (Starbucks offers a glazed old-fashioned, and Krispy Kreme has begun opening outlets here).  Other than that, the supermarket will sell you an enormous tub of mini-doughnuts, or you can get filled or jam doughnuts, as shows in the picture.  The jam doughnut would be no surprise to Americans, but the filled doughnut, split and filled with cream, and not even round, as new to me.  Very tasty, though.

Chelsea buns:  I would call these sweet rolls–spirals of dough with raisins or currants and sugar rolled up in the coil.  When someone asks for Chelsea buns, the ladies ask “iced or sugared?”  I’ve shown one of each; the sugared one has the sugar sprinkled on the top, instead of icing.

Along the righthand edge from back to front this shows: a gingerbread man, a mince pie in flaky pastry, a treacle tart, and an Eccles cake; just to the left of that there's a Viennese in the back and a rock cake in the front. (To identify those further left, see the caption for the other photo.)

Currants [please see correction, below!]  are one of the few fruits that will grow well here which also produce a decent amount of vitamin C.  During the war the government encouraged everyone to plant currants; we have some in the back garden.  In wartime, people made blackcurrant syrup and gave it to children like medicine, so as to make sure they got their vitamins; this has left the population with a taste for all things blackcurrant.  I find blackcurrant flavoring–which you get in everything from gumdrops (UK: fruit gums) to cough syrup (UK: cough mixture)–utterly vile, but as dried fruit currants are pretty good.

Flapjack:  These have nothing to do with the American idea of flapjacks as big pancakes; they’re bar cookies made with oatmeal, more like granola bars.

Vanilla Slice: Cream-filled flaky pastry with a thick layer of vanilla icing.

Viennese:  Viennese what?  Presumably Viennese cakes.  The bakery just calls them Viennese–which is an adjective, but no matter.  Two very buttery fluted cookies cemented together with icing and then dipped in chocolate at both ends.

The whole glorious trayful.

Mince pies: A Christmas staple that I’ve written about before. The Christmas bakery offers them in flaky pastry or shortcrust (ordinary pie crust).

Rock Cake: a rather hard biscuity cake studded with currants, rough on the top, with big sugar crystals.  Favorite of my husband, and of Hagrid in the Harry Potter books, although Hagrid makes his own, and–in a joke that is time-worn or time-honored here, take your pick–his are as hard as rocks.

Shortbread & Gingerbread: Much the same as American shortbread and gingerbread, although this gingerbread man is tipped in chocolate so as to clothe him with trousers.  At this time of year they also offer ginger Christmas trees.

Eccles cakes:  Round pastries filled with currants, brown sugar, and a bit of cinnamon.

Part of the hot-food cabinet, with its pies, pasties and pastries.

Treacle Tart: Here we get into a grey area, because if you’re asked to bring cakes, and show up with tarts, no one will think you’ve overstepped your remit even though these aren’t cakes because, well, they’re tarts.  I included treacle tart because it’s my favorite (and Harry Potter’s), and it’s something we don’t have in the US.  It’s also a way of recycling bread crumbs, which a bakery would presumably otherwise be drowning in.  The center is just bread crumbs, lemon juice and zest, and golden syrup (a type of treacle that I wrote about before).  It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s wonderful.

You could say that about several of these offerings, actually.  As you can see from list, the shapes and techniques may vary, but the list of flavorings is very simple.  Bill Bryson says in  Notes from a Small Island:

And the British are so easy to please.  It is the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why so many of their treats—tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys—are so cautiously flavorful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

The Christmas family has (UK: have—I will never get used to that) been making these traditional, simple treats in their bakery since 1860, but there may have been a bakery on the site before that.  There was certainly a mill nearby, in times past, and I’ve heard that the old mill house is still there.

But the Christmases don’t sell Madeira cake (much less pound cake).  And my recording for the BBC’s “More or Less” was left on the cutting-room floor; the producer apparently liked the way I emphasized the ratio (well, it is a show about numbers), but instead used a clip from the other listener who suggested pound cake, because she actually makes her own.

Me, I don’t make my own cakes anymore.  Why would I, with the Christmas family right down the road?

STOP PRESS!  The “More or Less” team decided to use my clip after all.   If you listen to the podcast, which you’ll find at (it’s the show for 16 Dec, marked as being about “Higgs boson statistics”, my little blurb on pound cake is at the end.  The very end, even after the credits, just about at the 27:50 mark (out of a 30 minute show!).  But it was fun to do!

CORRECTION: I have confused blackcurrants, the fruit that grows in my garden and that was given to children in wartime, for dried currants, a type of raisin used in baking.  Many thanks to Mary Korndorffer for letting me know.



Filed under Culture, Food

19 responses to “Small Pleasures

  1. Malcolm

    Scrumptious! Or, as Queen Elizabeth used to say in Blackadder “Scrummy!” The one cake you’ll never find in England but will be offered all over America is the “English muffin” – a 4in-high moist, crumbly cake bursting out of a crinkle paper cup like a 40in waist over a 30in belt. Where did that recipe come from? Apparently the Christmases don’t make my favourite, though — a 3in square comprising a half-inch layer of currants sandwiched between thin layers of hard short pastry. It’s official name escapes me but we’ve always called it “fly cemetery.”

    • Ah — I fear you may have mixed up the English muffin with the common or garden American muffin. An American “English muffin” has neither paper case nor waist and doth not bulge, and isn’t really all *that* different from what is sold in my neck of Surrey as a…muffin. The kind that you toast to go with your tea. The American notion of an English muffin is, like the muffins eaten by Brits in their native land, not something most people would ever call a cake.

      What the average American calls a muffin (without nationality noted) is, as you say, cake-like, with a accordion-fold paper case, and generally is found to be bulging out over the top.

      (Reminds me of waffles that are sold in the US as Belgian waffles, and we found when we lived in Belgium that they were called Brussels waffles, except in Brussels, where they’re just called waffles.)

      Wikipedia suggests that Eccles cakes have been known at various times and places as Squashed Fly Cake, Fly Cake, Fly Pie or even a Fly’s Graveyard. The thing you describe doesn’t sound like an Eccles cake, though, but more like this further entry in Wikipedia: “The Currant Square is a square shaped cake with shortcrust pastry only on the top and bottom and up to an inch of currant filling.”

      And *that* is really interesting, because my husband’s grandmother, when she went to school for a while in England ate something then that she told us was called Squashed Flies (or similar), and we’ve always thought she must’ve meant Garibaldi biscuits. (And why are they called Garibaldi biscuits, anyway?) But I’ll bet she meant your Fly Cemetery cake. (I see that the same Wikipedia entry suggests some kinship between the Eccles cake and the Garibaldi, which seems to me to stretch a point. The common ground is that they have the same ingredients. So do spaghetti and wallpaper paste, but there is a difference…)

  2. Ernest Adams

    Wikipedia informs us that “The Garibaldi biscuit was named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general and leader of the fight to unify Italy. During the war they had to use limited rations to prepare food; the result was a simple biscuit. Garibaldi made a popular visit to Tynemouth in England in 1854. It was first manufactured by the Bermondsey biscuit company Peek Freans in 1861 following the recruitment of one of the great biscuit makers of Scotland.”

  3. Hester Higton

    I fondly remember buying iced buns from the bakery on the way to the station from school. They cost 6p. If you were really lucky, they would have some of their fourpenny ‘bags of buns’ available. These were stuffed with the cakes that they hadn’t been able to sell the day before, so you got much more for your money, even if you had to find somebody to palm the inevitable custard tart off on.

    The very best Chelsea buns are made by the wonderful Fitzbillies in Cambridge, and their mail order service sends them all over the world. Most people in Cambridge were grief-stricken when Fitzbillies closed in February this year, but a well-timed tweet from Stephen Fry led to various people offering to take the business on. The shop and café reopened in August, and the new owners have even managed to hire the old Fitzbillies’ chef, so the secret recipe for the Chelsea buns lives on.

    • Thanks for the comment — I had heard of Fitzbillies, but had no idea it had even been under threat. When I visited a friend in Cambridge though, and only had one afternoon, we went to the Orchard at Grantham (as I think we corresponded about at the time?)

      Next time, Fitzbillies it is.

  4. Mary Korndorffer

    What a lovely advert for Christmas’ Bakery!

    But beware the confusion between “currants”, as used in cakes and garibaldi biscuits, and BLACKcurrants, as grown in your garden and to make Ribena etc. (also red/white currants). They do grow on bushes in this country, but cooking currants are small seedless grapes.
    See: What is the Difference between Raisins, Sultanas and Currants on
    I suffered from Chivers Blackcurrant puree during the war as it was a rare source of VitaminC for kids and we had it stirred into semolina which made a nasty grey porridge!

    Give Me a vanilla slice anytime: Happy Xmas cake
    Mary K

    • Thank you for clearing that up! I had read enough to know that there were currants that were a dried variety of raisin, but reading about the confusion left me (unknowingly) even more confused, because I came away from what I’d read thinking that dried currants and blackcurrants were the same thing. Argh.

      SO sorry! Thanks for the corretion.

  5. You asked: “Viennese what?” and I believe I have the answer – Viennese whirls! I was first introduced to them by my British inlaws, but I think of them as a biscuit (US: cookie) more than a cake. Generally the ones we get are jam and cream sandwiched between the soft cookies, but I have seen them with just cream, just jam and/or covered in various amounts of chocolate.

    They are usually sold in boxes with only a half-dozen or so.

    Here’s a page with the famous Mr Kipling’s offering.

  6. Candida

    In the area of things called cakes that don’t seem to be cakes, there is the tussle between McVities and the taxman over whether Jaffa Cakes are actually the cake implied by the name, or a biscuit. Because chocolate covered cakes attract no VAT (UK sales tax) but chocolate covered biscuits do. McVities won. I seem to recall that the main point, or one of them, was that a Jaffa Cake goes hard when stale, like a home-baked sponge cake, and a biscuit goes soft when stale, like, for example, a home-baked shortbread biscuit. So calling a gingerbread man a cake isn’t (legally) right – although old-fashioned gingerbread IS more of a cake, mostly seen now in the form of Parkin, a mainly northern tradition.
    I remember when first visiting the US in my teens being really taken with the exotic use of grapes or blueberries in jam/jelly instead of blackcurrants. Doing horticulture stuff later I learned that blackcurrants were popular in North America but growing them was banned from the early 20th century because they are a vector for some pest or disease that affected commercial tree plantations. So your logging industry granted you a lucky escape from them: their popularity here may not be down to wartime encouragement so much as the fact that they are phenomenally tough and prolific, cropping even without good sunlight (a handy trait in the British climate) with the easiest pruning regime imaginable, almost a no-fail plant, so commercial growers favour them strongly as a cheap and reliable fruit.

    • Thanks for that! How I wish grape jelly was exotic; our house had a vine of Concord grapes by the back door, and we had not-very-nice homemade grape jelly and juice the whole time I was growing up. I yearned for orange juice (which is what the television told me *normal* people had). Turned out the problem was that my frugal parents were mashing heroically on the jelly bag to get every last molecule out, and if you do that, you get cloudy stuff that doesn’t taste very good. They didn’t learn the trick of making the good stuff until some time after I’d grown up and left home.

  7. MFC

    Mmmmm. Lovely post, MEF. I think I put on five pounds just reading it!

    I’m with you on the “Viennese” thing. Oh, how it grates every time someone says they’re going to have “a Danish”! A Danish . . . *what*?!

    Last week was the first time I’d ever heard of dipping gingerbread in chocolate. My book club had read a German novel and the hostess for our discussion meeting, (who is of German extraction and has lived in Germany off and on), provided German goodies, which included gingerbread covered in chocolate. Really good. Never would’ve thought of such a thing.

    Finally, I must ask whether ANZAC biscuits have any degree of popularity in England. My husband and I stumbled upon them in Australia and nabbed a bag, for the sole reason that the company that made them was, (wait for it!), the Ernest Adams baking company!! Yummy things, made with rolled oats, butter, and golden syrup. I’m told they originated as a sturdy cookie that would withstand naval transportation to members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, (ANZAC), during World War I. Over time, they came to be popular items to sell during fund-raisers for veterans’ groups.

    • I’ve seen ANZAC biscuits at Sainsburys, but they weren’t Ernest Adams brand. (They weren’t…terribly good, either.) I’m sure the homemade ones are better; homemade oatmeal cookies generally are.

      Having had occasion to sample (ahem) the gingerbread man, I think I prefer the non-chocolate version. I like my chocolate chocalate-y and my gingerbread gingerbready. Or something.

  8. Hester Higton

    My Mum makes ANZAC biscuits fairly often, but I think she’s pretty unusual in that.

    I think that when Viennese biscuits are made long and thin like these ones then they’re Viennese fingers, not whirls. The whirls are generally circular. You make them by putting the mix into a forcing bag with a twirly nozzle and pushing them out – a lot harder work than with icing!

    • Viennese fingers — the mystery solved! I’ve got a pastry bag that can be fitted with different tips to press out different shapes, which is fun. My husband saw a bit of a cooking programme once and was trying to describe to me later the way the chef used a pastry bag to pipe mousse into something-or-other and said “And then he sklooshed the mousse into it.” Me: “How?” Him: “With this mousse-skloosher thing.” Now you know what we call a pastry bag at our house…

  9. I bet you will have more replies to this blog than any other. Just shows you what is nearest & dearest to us all.

    & I worked up such an appetite just reading, that I’m going to have some Oreos dipped in milk right after I punch Post. Believe it or not, I once brought Oreos to a cookie exchange—as a joke. And guess what – – – not a single one was left on the platter.

    How bout that for your next blog—-guilty trashy food pleasures.

    • I have tried serving Oreos–bought as an exotic import and so rather expensive here–to British guests, and they eye the black cookie with great suspicion and take something more familiar from the plate. All the more for me…

  10. Malcolm

    Danish? When I lived in Sweden in the late ‘Fifties I was amused–but not surprised–to learn that they called those cakes wienerbroed, “Viennese bread.” Seems we all want to blame someone else when we mount the bathroom scales.

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