Tag Archives: food

An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? Traveltrade.visitlondon.com posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!

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An English Christmas 2 (Revisited): Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

Happy Christmas! Or if you’re American, Merry Christmas! This post first ran on Christmas Even 2010, but the ritual is the same…

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.

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An English Christmas (Revisited): Part 1

Most current subscribers and readers have been following my Anglo-American Experience for less than a couple of years, so I’m taking the liberty of reposting, this year, a series of Christmas posts from 2010.  I’m not updating it, although there’s no snow this year, which might be a shame; then again there’s no probablem with BT’s phone lines this year, which is a definite plus.  In any case, I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a happy mid-winter festival, whichever one you may celebrate.

It snowed last week and for a while the world outside my window looked like a Christmas card—well, that is, if your Christmas card picture of snowy English countryside includes a British Telecom engineer up on a telephone pole.

Americans often romanticize England—no BT engineers allowed—and almost everybody romanticizes Christmas. So what is a modern Christmas actually like in our part of England? I’m going to have to take that question a little bit at a time, and I’ve left it rather late. I’ll start with food—in fact, I’ll start with just one dish.

The three wise men on a Christmas cake.

There are three traditional desserts at Christmas. It’s not that people choose one of the three; they generally offer them all. Many Americans will have heard of the most important one, Christmas pudding (also called plum pudding), even if they’ve never tasted it. The majority of English people would think a Christmas dinner that didn’t end with Christmas pudding was incomplete. Then there are mince pies the size of small tarts, which are more informal and are served not just on Christmas day but throughout the season to guests who drop by, or at teatime—or to guests who drop by at tea time. But the one I hadn’t heard of before my first Yule in England is Christmas cake.

First, you have to realize that the English idea of fruitcake is very different from the American “let this cake pass from me” attitude. British readers may not be aware that fruitcakes are objects of derision in American popular culture, right up there with accordions. (I was living in Belgium when I first saw the Far Side cartoon in which those entering heaven are issued their harps, and those entering hell are issued their accordions. My Belgian colleagues didn’t understand why I thought that was funny—one of the guys even said “My mother plays the accordion”—so I didn’t try to explain.)

Everybody in the US has heard tales of fruitcakes that are never eaten, but that make the rounds from new giver to new recipient every Christmas for decades, Christmas being virtually the only time that Americans eat fruitcake. The British wouldn’t necessarily get the humour in that; on the whole, they like fruitcake. If you’re invited over for someone’s birthday the cake will probably be a fruitcake, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes, and no British summer picnic is complete without fruitcake.

An English Christmas cake is a fruitcake topped with a layer of marzipan, then royal icing, and finally decorations, which can be as simple as a ribbon tied around the cake, or very, very elaborate. You can coat holly leaves in egg whites and sprinkle with sugar to look like snow, you can buy special molds to make your own sugar Christmas bells, or you can have another glass of wine and put your feet up, having bought some Christmas cake decorations ready-made and thereby bought yourself some time.

My family\’s Christmas cake decorations.

Or better yet, if you’re really lucky, someone will give you heirloom Christmas cake decorations. The ones I use were passed down to me from my mother-in-law, who was given them by an English lady when their family lived in Sudan many years ago. Being an American, my mother-in-law hadn’t heard of British Christmas cakes and didn’t realize that’s what the decorations were for, so for decades she set them up as a little Christmas scene on the sideboard. When I encountered English Christmas cakes, we realized what we had, and now I decorate our cakes with those little old-fashioned figures made of plaster, wood, and some kind of bristles (for the evergreen branches): two snowy trees, a cottage, a cockeyed snowman every bit as big as the cottage, and a tiny church over which the little Father Christmas looms like Godzilla.

I made my Christmas cake this year ridiculously late, barely more than two weeks before Christmas. You’re supposed to start about Hallowe’en. You wrap up the cake in grease-proof paper, which is something like American waxed paper, and then foil, and then shut it into a cake tin, which you open every week or so to dose the cake with liquor, which is called feeding the cake.

You’re supposed to feed the cake by trickling a teaspoon of brandy into it, but I was way behind schedule and the bottle had only about half a cup left in it, so I just gave the cake the best feeding a cake ever had and emptied the bottle. A little more never hurt, surely. In fact, I think the problem with American fruitcakes is that they don’t put enough booze into them.

Elaborate Christmas cake decorations to buy from http://www.cakecraftshop.co.uk. I’ve never seen a purple Christmas cake, though.

Pretty soon it’ll be time for me to take the cake out of the tin, cover it with the marzipan, and mix up the dreadful icing which, while inedible, does cover a multitude of ills. I read about a lady whose cake came out dramatically lopsided, but she went right ahead and iced it, and decorated it with little figures of skiers, plunging down the slope. Now that’s panache.

So the icing blankets the cake in something like the way the snow blankets the landscape, and that’s a sort of romanticizing, too. The snow covers, or at least masks, all the imperfections—including the blue bathtub that the farmer across the road has in the field as a horse trough—leaving the viewer to imagine that an English Christmas is just like the ones on the Christmas cards or in the storybooks.

It’s starting to melt, but I’m hoping it’ll hang on. It’s only two days until Christmas.

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Thanksgiving Turkey and Pumpkin Pie: American Cultural Imperialism?

I hope American readers had a great Thanksgiving celebration yesterday; over here, it was a regular workday, of course, like any other.  It’s not part of British tradition to go “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” for a turkey dinner.  Nor do they shout “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”—okay, Americans don’t either, except in the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods song, but pumpkin pie is almost unknown here.  Happily for me, that’s changing. It’s getting easier to find Libby’s canned pumpkin nowadays, although it’s only available seasonally, and you have to find a store with a section of American imports, but when I first moved to Britain, I couldn’t get pumpkin at all.  And what’s Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie?  I think that’s more important than the turkey.

A wild turkey does his courtship display on the grounds of Ash Canyon B and B, which my friend Mary Jo Ballator manages as a wildlife and bird sanctuary. This species is the Gould Turkey, which is common in the Huachuca Mountains of SE Arizona. Photo courtesy of Ash Canyon B&B — http://AshCanyonBAndB.com

My November column for the Guildford Dragon NEWS was about Thanksgiving and turkeys, as it happens, and featured one British person who does seem to ‘get’ Thanksgiving: Surrey turkey farmer Derek Joy.  His big market is Christmas, because that’s when the British traditionally eat turkey, but he told me he sells a lot more Thanksgiving turkeys than you might suppose—about a third as many as he sells for Christmas.

I’m learning, in writing columns for the Dragon NEWS, how different it is to write for a primarily British audience rather than a primarily American one.  I recycled an anecdote  from last Thanksgiving’s blog post  for the opening of that NEWS column, and had to make some interesting changes.  For American readers, I just reported a conversation between two “British TV personalities” about what Thanksgiving dinner is; for British readers I can say who the “personalities” were, which brings in all the overtones and implications of those personalities’, er…personalities.  British readers can be amused that it was Carol Vorderman who came out with wrong information, because she’s a game-show host and a sort of professional know-it-all (UK: know-all), whereas American readers would just say “Who?”  And British readers wouldn’t bat an eye to hear that Vorderman said that Americans eat chipolatas for Thanksgiving.  For all they know, it’s true; for Americans, that’s the punchline.  She thinks we serve turkey and chipolatas?  What the heck is a chipolata?

Another handsome turkey (or is it the same one? I can’t tell) poses for the benefit of potential mates. Photo courtesy of Ash Canyon B and B — http://ashcanyonbandb.com

Most British people don’t really seem to understand Thanksgiving—and of course there’s no reason for them to keep up with the festivals of other countries—so I was surprised to learn from Derek Joy that British interest in Thanksgiving is growing (the Dragon NEWS column has a bit more info).  So far, celebrating Thanksgiving hasn’t caught on in Britain to the point that it sparks the kind of pushback there is against trick-or-treating, which is seen by a number of people here as a nasty habit being imposed on Britain by American imperialists bent on cultural domination.  Er, no.  Americans do not care one bit whether British kids go trick-or-treating.

I suppose if enough British people ever become interested in Thanksgiving, that could start to rankle, too.  As of the last census, there were about 160,000 American-born people living in the UK, out of a total population of over 62,000,000. So I think we’re safe for a while yet.

Of course, if there is a secret plan to take over UK culture, one American-imposed holiday at a time, Mr Joy might be part of the advance party, and those cans of Libby’s pumpkin might be the thin end of the dastardly Thanksgiving wedge.

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An Announcement, Enhanced with Autumn Colour

Looking across a vineyard toward the main building at Denbies in the summer; you could almost be in the Napa Valley (but it’s a little *too* green). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Please excuse me for delaying the promised post on the William Blake/Sir Hubert Parry song “Jerusalem” by posting this announcement instead: As of last week, I’m writing a column  for the Guildford Dragon NEWS, Guildford’s independent online news(not-actually-on)paper.

Vine leaves changing colour at Denbies.

I’ll be looking in those columns at the same sorts of things I write about here, except that I’ll focus on people, places and events in the Borough of Guildford, with Guildfordians as the target readers.

The publisher has seen fit to call the column “The Eagle Eye” (not my choice; feel free to suggest something better!), and we may soon have a logo, drawn to resemble a pub sign.  The Guildford Dragon is interested in pubs—but who isn’t? I’ll probably write a certain amount about local pubs, though at the rate they’re closing I’d better hurry.  (There are none left in the village where I live, three having closed since we moved here–not that I’m implying causality there, you understand.)

More vineyards at Denbies. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first column went up last week, though readers here might recognize most of that offering as one I made earlier (as the chefs on telly/TV say); it’s a reprise of my article on the civic procession for the service for the mayor after last May’s Mayor Making.  (Bet you can’t say that three times fast.)

After this, there should be a new Eagle Eye column appearing in the third week of every month.

More Fal–er, Autumn colour at Denbies

Now, the one rule of blogging is Don’t Be Boring, so in an effort to give you something more interesting for your time spent here today, I’ve added some photos of Denbies,  a winery in the eastern part of Surrey.  Vineyards in Britain?  Absolutely!  The first ones were planted by the Romans.  Look for a post on the Denbies winery, probably in the new year.

Main building at Denbies Wine Estate. The light-coloured tower is above the main entrance, but the wing in the foreground, painted black, houses the Surrey Performing Arts Library, which was the reason for my trip.

The winery building houses, for reasons unclear to me, the Surrey Performing Arts Library, a branch of the public library, and I was there to do research on the composer of “Jerusalem”.  With the vine leaves turning colour on a sunny autumn (Brits don’t call it “fall”) day, it was glorious; you see, I hope, the sacrifices I make to research these posts.

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Roadkill on the Information Highway

Screen shot of the promotional website described in this post, taken from the Daily Mail’s website. For  full story, see the Daily Mail link in the text just to the right of this image.

Kentucky made headlines in England a few weeks ago—while I was in Kentucky, as it happens.  I saw the story in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, but it made the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, too: the British public relations firm Gosh PR, hired to promote the state to potential tourists from Britain, created a website suggesting that the unusual number of dead animals and the wide variety of species you could see flattened on Kentucky roads was a big draw for visitors.  They recommended that tourists play “roadkill bingo” while driving along listening to the “jingle-jangle of the banjo” from bluegrass radio stations.   (Stereotype much?)

The website did suggest visiting bourbon distilleries, and the horse farms of the thoroughbred industry, but also invited tourists to come see “Hazzard County – home of Boss Hogg and the Duke boys”, with a photo of the actress who played Daisy in The Dukes of Hazzard; unfortunately Hazzard County is a) fictional, and b) supposed to be in Georgia.  Oops.  The contract with Gosh PR—which had garnered nearly 2/3 of a million Kentucky tax dollars over the years—was cancelled and the government official responsible resigned.

A postcard showing “Sanders Court and Cafe” in its prime; the caption on the reverse reads (take it as read that [sic] appears every time you think it should): “Sander’s Court / Corbin KY. / Asheville, N.C. / Harland Sanders, Owner – Mgr. / Offer complete accommodations with tile baths, (abundance of hot water), carpeted floors, “Perfect Sleeper” beds, air conditioned, steam heated, radio in every room, open all year, serving excellent food.”

Looking into the story a bit more, I was surprised to find various websites not only saying that Kentuckians like to dine on roadkill (with squirrel supposedly being “something of a delicacy”), but claims that the Kentucky stew known as burgoo is a “traditional” recipe for eating up any roadkill that you find—unlikely, since references to the dish go back to the 18th century and the car wasn’t invented until the 20th.  Burgoo in Kentucky was less a recipe than a name for a stew of whatever you had on hand; if you came back from hunting with two possums and a rabbit, then that’s what went into the pot, with you here meaning Daniel Boone or someone of the sort.

In any case, we didn’t eat roadkill or burgoo when I grew up in Kentucky, nor did we eat an inordinate amount of fried chicken, though of course that’s the first thing my English neighbors think when they hear I’m from Kentucky: “Oh, where the fried chicken comes from!”  So of course, on vacation/holiday recently, when I realized I was near Colonel Sanders’s original restaurant, I had to stop in and take some snapshots to post here for you.

At the Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin KY, you can have your photo taken sitting on a bench with the Colonel, or at least, a sort of resin effigy of the Colonel, which I found…decidedly creepy, actually.

British people sometimes ask me whether Colonel Sanders was a real person, and I can assure them that he was; we used to see him at state fairs and such gatherings, but as he was a benevolent sort of character, who wore non-standard clothes in a particular color scheme as a sort of uniform and sported trademark facial hair, I can see how people might be tempted to lump him in with Santa Claus (or, in a quote I ran across on the internet, “Father Time or Uncle Sam”).

The real live Colonel started with a gas station, added a café, later still adding a motel and renaming the place the Sanders Court and Café, and prospered.  By 1937, he’d expanded the place to the point it could seat 142 customers, but he found that people stopping in for gas and a meal didn’t order the fried chicken dinner as often as they might, because it took too long to prepare and they wanted to get back out onto the road.  So he invented a technique for frying chicken in pressure cookers.  (That’s an idea that makes me cringe; I’m scared of pressure cookers at the best of times, and what’s worse than an exploding metal vessel full of steam? An exploding metal vessel full of boiling oil.)

The Museum includes recreations of the kitchen at the original Sanders Cafe.


But when President Eisenhower’s system of interstate highways reached Kentucky, the Colonel found his restaurant bypassed.  Cars and diners stopped coming.  At age 65, he sold the place to pay his debts, ended up broke, and with his first social security check hit the road to demonstrate to other restaurateurs how you could put together a tasty chicken dinner if you used his recipe, and do it fast if you used his method—and he’d show you how to make those chicken dinners if you promised to pay him a nickel every time you served one.

A bronze bust of the Colonel, made by his daughter. He didn’t ordinarily stay in one place long enough to sit for a likeness, but he was snowed in at the time and had no choice. From his expression, I’d say he was pretty peeved.

The rest is history—history you can see today if you visit the Harland Sanders Museum and Café.  It’s in Corbin, Kentucky, on the Whitley-Knox county line, rather than in London, Kentucky, in Laurel County—that’s another little detail that tripped up Gosh PR. Their website also suggested that tourists might go see the Kentucky Derby at Keeneland in Lexington; you can go to Keeneland for Derby Day if you like, but you’ll watch the race on a big screen, because the horses will be running at Churchill Downs in Louisville, as they always have.  Louisville, by the way, was important in the story of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to see how far west the North American continent actually extended, but Gosh PR, alas, referred readers to the expedition of Louis and Clark.

Gosh personnel could have nailed down a lot of those niggling details with just a quick look at Wikipedia; okay, it’s hardly an authoritative source, but it would have been better than nothing. To be fair, though, when the Kentucky tourism commissioner resigned he admitted that he had approved Gosh’s website, so he didn’t know any better, either. 

It would be nice to think that British people might visit Kentucky, if only because I might hear “Oh, where the chicken comes from!” less often if my neighbors knew more than one fact about Kentucky, but that may be expecting too much. England was the first country overseas to get a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and there are an awful lot of them here. But while Colonel Sanders may still be a famous face, his popularity is slipping.  A 1976 poll apparently showed Colonel Sanders to be the second most-recognized celebrity in the world (after fellow-Kentuckian Muhammad Ali) but a survey in 2011 found that only 6 in 10 young adults recognized the Colonel, and over half of those surveyed thought he was a mascot only, not a real person.

Sounds like the KFC company needs a better PR firm.  D’you think Gosh would bid for the job?

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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 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.

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