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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/moreorless (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.