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British cakes - let's not forget the classics.

Wed, 21 September, 2016

British cakes! The Battenbergs, the Eccles, Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut, carrotbanana and toffee! I love a counter with cake stands in old-school tea rooms. Peeking from under their glass domes, the cakes stand proud: no Cinderellas but rather the feisty and ballsy (and more interesting characters than boring Cindy) Ugly Sisters.

Admittedly, they won’t win any beauty contests against the likes of millefeuille, black forest gateaux or cassata. Two slabs of stodgy sponge (called sponge only by the Brits; the rest of the world knows that sponges are virtually butterless) glued together with enough jam to sink and army and thick, sickly buttercream - just in case jam wasn’t sweet enough. That’s what we call Victoria sponge - victorious if used as a throwing weapon…

Never knowingly undersweeten - is the British cake’s motto, and white caster sugar it is, none of that soft brown or muscovado nonsense. What we are sparing with is butter - the cakes are often crumbly and dry-ish. The old-school logic of ‘butter clogs arteries’ and ‘sugar gives you energy’ dies hard!

We go to town though for special occasions - Christmas cake? Here we go, can’t see the cake for the fruit; its booze consumption is worthy of a seasoned alkie, an inch thick layer of marzipan cuddles the lot; topped - just to be safe - by an inch of royal icing which is the only foodstuff which doesn’t scare the British with its raw egg content! 

It’s telling that the English language doesn’t have a word to describe a cake-maker: bakery is associated with bread; confectionery is chocolates and candy; and 'cake makers' sounds just too plain for words. Historically, cake was a type of bread: yeasty but rich, sweetened and more festive, baked in the baker's oven for special occasions. Hence these days yeasty cakes are frequently (and weirdly in my view) called 'bread'; with 'tea-' perfunctorily prefixing it.

But there is more confusion as to what the cake categories are - see the hotchpotch on Great British Bake Off, with the category of ‘batter’ suddenly springing up (really?). Batter is not a type of cake, nor is it a type of cake dough. We can try to differentiate like other baking cultures do, but it will be into sponges, butter-based cakes, yeast dough, laminated dough, shortcrust etc. - simply depending on the technique and approach adopted. But seeing as the British way is the ‘bucket’ way - to invariably throw all the ingredients in a bowl and hope for the best - it’s a bit too much to expect.

Some products though have gone abroad and been remade into American versions - quite like successful television programmes. Fairy cakes! Where are ye? With the light fluffy sponge base and mouse-modest lick of glace icing, plus perhaps a few sprinkles? Gone over the ocean to change their name to cupcakes, getting stodgy and smothered in sickly buttercream, that’s where. Even butterfly cakes have lost their wings; and scones have acquired a completely misleading misnomer of ‘biscuits’.

I say: keep on baking the classics. They are hard to beat, and can easily be improved on so the likes of me stop poking fun at them: less sugar, less refined. More butter. Forget about marge, but by all means use lard or shortening if recipe thus commands - that’s where interesting texture pays off for being old-fashioned. Beat the butter with sugar first, instead of taking the bucket approach. Separate the eggs - sometimes. Less is more - usually. And the classics will take you nowhere near the self-righteous gluten-free brigade: THEY ARE ALL MADE WITH WHEAT FLOUR.


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