While researching food for my post on the Top 10 Classic British Meals to Warm Your Soul and Fill Your Stomach, I came across so many amazing dishes that I had to write a post dedicated to desserts.
If nothing else, a serving or two of sticky toffee pudding or a warm fruit crumble ought to put to rest Britain’s reputation for awful food. It was very hard to come up with only 10 delicious dishes, and these are only the most popular/traditional ones. Be sure to leave a comment and let me know which of your favorites I left out!
As legend has it, this confection was invented when a muddleheaded cook was instructed to make a jam tart, but instead spread a layer of jam right on the shortcrust pastry and topped it with an egg and almond mixture. The result was a jammy, custardy tart that has been a classic ever since. The very similar Bakewell Pudding is a variation using puff pastry. Here is a recipe for a Bakewell Tart using raspberry jam and orange zest.
Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated every fifth of November, is not complete without fireworks, a bonfire, and a heaping plate of fresh treacle toffee. This brittle black sweet (called claggum in Scotland and loshin du in Wales) has a flavor like molasses and butterscotch. It’s not known exactly how this became a traditional Bonfire Night treat, but it’s well worth a try if you’re looking for something rich and sticky at any time of year.
Bread and Butter Pudding
Puddings of all kinds are wildly popular all over the British Isles, but one in particular is so easy to make that it qualifies as the ultimate comfort food. All you have to do is layer slices of buttered bread in a dish, scatter it with raisins, and pour egg and milk (or cream) seasoned with nutmeg and vanilla over top. Served with custard, this pudding is a creamy delight (get the traditional recipe here).
If you love cinnamon rolls, you’ll adore the Chelsea Bun. Invented in London at the Chelsea Bun House around the 18th century, these swirls of dough stuffed with butter, brown sugar, spices, and dried fruit—warm from the oven and drizzled with icing—are almost too good to be true. These buns are traditionally square-shaped, and any mixture of raisins, sultanas, or currants will do.
A Lancashire specialty, Eccles Cakes are also known as “squashed fly cakes” because of the pasty’s dark currant filling. Since James Birch began selling them in 1793, the recipe has been a closely guarded secret. There are many versions available today, but the best share a tender, flaky crust concealing gooey, spicy insides. To find out more about the Eccles Cake, check out this blog post.
One of the greatest uses for strawberries ever, the Eton Mess gets its name from Eton College. This school has been educating young boys since 1440, and somehow became associated with this mishmash of strawberries, pieces of meringue, and cream that looks like the smashed remains of a lovely dish. Etonian lore says that it was invented by accident, but no matter the origin, this “dessert of dreams” is a super-easy sweet—just watch as Nigella Lawson whips up a few servings of Eton Mess in less than five minutes.
While Americans make fun of Christmas fruitcakes, the British love their version—which deserves more credit than it gets. A truly great British Fruit Cake is made weeks or months ahead of time and periodically “fed” with alcohol (and there are no electric green fruits in sight). The Fruit Cake is traditional fare at Christmastime (covered in marzipan and royal icing), and is also the classic British wedding cake. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had an eight-tiered Fruit Cake decorated 900 sugar-paste flowers.
Another Christmas dessert that has been a favorite since ancient times is the Mince or Mincemeat Pie. The name hearkens back to a time when mincemeat actually contained minced meat, but no fear—today the filling is just a mixture of minced suet, fruits, candied citrus peel, and warming spices. Sometimes served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or lashings of cream, Mince Pie has come a long way from the sweet-and-savory dish of the past. Here is a recipe for an authentic Tudor Mincemeat Pie (complete with coffyn), and this is a video tutorial on making your own Christmas Mince Pies.
Despite the snigger-worthy name, this pudding is really delicious. The word “dick” is a colloquialism for pudding, and the “spotted” part comes from the dried fruit sprinkled throughout the dough (this dish is also called “spotted dog” as it’s supposed to resemble a Dalmatian). Traditionally served in a pool of custard, the ingredients are simple enough—a sponge pudding studded with raisins or currants—but so rich as to make this a very special treat indeed.
A sumptuous pile of egg custard, sponge cake, fruit, jelly, sherry, and whipped cream layered one on top of the other, the English Trifle is a wonder to behold. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared it “That most wonderful object of domestic art.” It’s certainly an impressive dish, and a brilliant use of leftovers. Check out this blog post documenting my own attempt at a traditional English Trifle (let me assure you, the result was fantastic).
This post was written by Abigail Rogers, a writer and foodie who is addicted to all things British. If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love her eBook on historical English cookery. She blogs at www.PictureBritain.com.