I forgot that the entry about biscuits was supposed to be about cakes, as the two together are double-trouble but separately hardly seem to warrant their own entry.
I have a Wilton Cake Decorating Certificate Level One, so I know how to make roses, tulips, leaves, clowns, etc, out of buttercream (though one look at the ingredients in professional buttercream is enough to make you sick . . . still, it accounts for how cake decorators and bakers don’t die of overeating, and the recipe itself gives you the right consistency between stiffness and malleability). However, I do despise the traditional English hard icing which you can find, as I said, on Christmas cakes as well as wedding cakes and cakes shaped like Daleks (ie, any commercially-available cakes like those from the bakeries of Tesco, Sainsburys, etc). My friend Jo makes spectacular cakes with a buttercream icing recipe she got from her grandmother, but she’s the exception to the rule. I really enjoyed sculpting shapes out of hard icing for Christmas fairy cakes, but I found it very difficult to actually eat any of these cakes as the icing makes me want to barf.
We’ll get to the cupcake/fairy cake/butterfly cake debate a bit later. We’ll start with that most classic of English cakes, the Victoria sponge. Named, of course, after the Queen, this cake (also named a Victoria sandwich or just a plain sponge) is a light yellow/white cake sandwiched in the middle with jam, sometimes with cream, and usually left unadorned on top (though the variety I ate yesterday had a creamy, not quite buttercream icing). It is a staple in any kind of gathering where a pudding (ie, dessert) is needed. Madeira cake, for all its exotic name, does not contain the wine nor does it come from Madeira—it is simply a lemon-flavored sponge. Almost as ubiquitous, though quite different in makeup and ingredients is the crumble, which is similar to the more American-styled dessert of the cobbler (or crisp, as in apple crisp).
Our friend Mr Kipling (who makes the French Fancies my friend Julie so adores; see the last entry) also makes commercially available some other favorite British treats, such as the Bakewell tart. I’ve never had one that I can recall, I just remember the colourfully branded box from Tesco. If you’ve seen Love Actually, you may recall Keira Knightley’s character trying to bribe her husband’s best man with a piece of banoffee pie (if memory serves correctly, at least!). I have a recipe for banoffee pie, which is one of two cakes I made for my 22nd birthday. Many people at the party had never heard of banoffee pie before, and I thought maybe it was an American recipe after all. However, according to Wikipedia, it’s a 1972 recipe from East Sussex. I think it’s delicious—bananas, toffee, cream, and condensed milk—and apparently it’s a favorite in India as well.
A curious and rather beautiful cake I’ve always aspired to make the Battenburg (history unknown) which is covered in marzipan and has a lovely checkerboard pattern achieved by two differently colored cake batters sandwiched together. One of my published poems, “Kardomah Waitress, 1900” mentions a Dundee cake, a Scottish fruit cake. I have never eaten one. It’s similar, I understand, to Christmas cake or fruit cake. I found it very funny when people started calling Christopher Eccleston “Eccles-cake” when referring to him in a Doctor Who context, and it was only after I had my first Eccles cake (in a bakery in Chester, rather strangely) that I understood exactly what that referred to.
It is an aphorism to this day that if you get two of my work colleagues and myself together, eventually we will always talk about tea and cake. We even started singing a cake musical at one point. The central debate started not long after I had begun working there about the difference between a cupcake, a fairy cake, and a butterfly cake. The short answer is that now a cupcake and a fairy cake are the same entity. In the past, an American cupcake and a British fairy cake were the same, and a British cupcake was like a pound cake, smaller in size but with roughly the same ratio of ingredients. This is why there is such confusion today, and which is why my colleagues have insisted that they are two different things. By the way, in case you think a fairy cake is a bizarre terminology for a muffin-sized or cup-sized cake, think of the logical extension that diminutive folk should be able to eat small-sized cakes. (That or else we’d have to start calling them “infant-cakes” or “baby-cakes,” which conjures up entirely the wrong idea!) A butterfly cake, on the other hand, is a curious variant wherein the cupcake (or fairy cake!) is baked, the top half is scooped out and cut in half, then the hole is filled with cream or jam, and the “wings” are stuck back onto the cake with frosting. I have never eaten or made one of these; they live in mystical legend.
Not long before we both set off back to the UK, my friend Patricia and I made a traditional English trifle in her air-conditioned house in Albuquerque. This is layers of sponge cake (or lady fingers), soaked in Madeira or sherry, with fresh fruit, custard, and a ton of whipped cream on top. It is a lovely desert and not nearly as overwhelming as it looks; it is a good one for the spring and summer. I also have a recipe for “Bad Girls’ Trifle,” which I haven’t tried yet. Of a similar principle, I suppose, is sticky toffee pudding, which I believe I first encountered as a flavored tea! It is a moist sponge cake covered in a rich and very sweet toffee sauce. And the winner for the silliest-named British cake is the spotted dick pudding. I remember I had just recently come to Swansea and my Irish housemate Claire and I were eating at a pub (I think the Rhyddings) with her mother, examining the menu. We looked at each other over this dessert and she said, “No, I’ve never heard of it either.” It is, in fact, a steamed suet pudding with custard; no one knows how the “dick” in the name came about.
The Arctic roll, while not exactly a cake, is still worth a mention here, as its popularity boomed in the 1980s, then it disappeared, only to be reintroduced in 2008 (after the “economic downturn”) whereupon its sales shot up. I have had one myself (a simple Swiss roll/jelly roll type cake with ice cream in the middle), and they are enjoyable.
ME WANT CAKEY-CAKE!