Dispatches from England: Exploring British Cake Culture


One of the really fun aspects of having visitors from America spend time with us is that they get a glimpse of life here that might not be immediately obvious to a more casual tourist coming over to Great Britain. And it’s always interesting to see what cultural differences or nuances they pick up on. So when my sister visited last week and said, “Wow, they’re really into cake here,” I thought this would be a good topic to shed a little more light on.

Cake. What’s not to love, right? That is certainly the mindset here. In the U.S., I typically only think about or eat cake before a birthday party, or maybe some other type of celebration. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, I most definitely do. But I’ve learned more about cake since moving to England 8 months ago than I did my previous 33 years of life.

When I first moved here, I noticed that some of the coffee shops and tea rooms offered cake as the primary food option. When we were exploring many of the tourist areas around our home this past summer, we quickly realized that outside of the major meal times, cake might be the only food available for purchase at some refreshment stands. Indeed, at our local pub, a sign stands along the road advertising “coffee and cake all day.” I often visit around the noon hour, only to find my table is the only one eating a warm meal, while the other patrons are eating cake.

Then, when my son started school a few months later, I learned that hosting what’s called a “cake stall” was a big fundraising tool for various causes by the parents’ group. It’s the equivalent of a bake sale in the U.S. And then I read about cake club meetings around town, and lessons in cake decorating and baking at various bakeries and shops.

My realization that cake is king here was cemented when I started watching the Great British Bake Off. It’s a television show meets cooking competition, where amateur (but very experienced) bakers compete in various challenges to see who is the best baker among the group. I was instantly hooked (and often hungry while watching!) While it wasn’t limited just to cakes, I learned a lot about the various types of cakes by watching, and even some of the expressions used. For instance, the judges would often say, “that was a good bake” to a contestant when they had achieved the right consistency in their cake.

So what’s my favorite type of British cake? It’s hard to go wrong, especially if you have a sweet tooth, but I’ve fallen in love with Millionaire’s Shortbread. I’m not sure if it’s technically a cake (what defines that anyway?), perhaps it’s more of a bar or brownie. Regardless, it’s delicious and if you ever visit, put it on your “must eat” list. The base is a shortbread (like a crumbly vanilla cookie), the middle layer is caramel, and the top is a dark chocolate. It almost tastes a bit like a Twix candy bar, only better. I don’t bake, but I found this recipe here if you fancy trying to make it yourself. I asked my 4-year-old son, and he said he loves when his school serves sponge cake as their pudding after lunch. “Any flavor, I like them all,” he added. Smart boy.

What’s your favorite type of cake? I’d love to try them all before I move back to the “birthday party cake” culture of America!

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  1. avatar says

    Nicole, if I’m not mistaken, the millionaire’s shortbread would be considered a traybake rather than a cake. One of my favorite English cakes is the Victoria Sponge. I agree with your smart 4-year-old son — “Any flavor, I like them all.”

  2. avatardixiebrit says

    Favorite cakes? Difficult question. Have you tried Battenburg cakes yet? If you like almond or marzipan, these are wonderful. My Brit hubby always loved his mum’s sponge cake (must be made with good quality seedless raspberry jam, like Wilkin & Sons) but his favorite is a fruit cake. As you probably now know, “fruit” cake in England is NOT the same as the USA. Most likely it is a raisin or currant cake, like Dundee cake or even Christmas cake. He’ll take that with his elevenses any day. Oh, and Nicole, if you want to see the folks in the pub eating an actual meal, don’t go at noon – try 1pm. That’s “lunch time” to most Brits.

  3. avatarJane says

    Love those millionaire bars, although where my family comes from, they were called “Caramello”. (or maybe that was just a family nickname?) My fondest memories are of helping my Gran bake them. My grandfather, a consummate Geordie, called them a “Clarty mess”. Whenver I get my hands on some golden syrup, I like to whip up a batch. Might need to go make some right now. yuuuum!

  4. avatarJohn Norris says

    Up in Yorkshire they have a cake called a ‘Fat Rascal’ which is great with a cup of tea. Another speciality in that part of the world is ‘Parkin’. However, I would buy them at one of markets or bakeries and enjoying them at home rather than in a café as I find cakes here vastly over-priced per slice!

  5. avatarGlenda Ray says

    As an American who grew up in the South, cake is always served year round, still is. I make, from scratch not mix, on average two cakes a week. I hate it when someone from any country tries to generalize what an entire country’s habits are by the region from which they came. The U.S. is huge and the different areas have different traditions, just as not all areas of Great Britain have thesame traditions in food or much else. You do not represent all America.

    • avatarRoxanne Stickler says

      I don’t see where Nicole claims to ‘represent all America’. She merely stated she sees more cake in the UK than she did in the US. Having been to the UK for several extended visits , I have to agree – cakes of all types are offered more than other desserts seem to be.

    • avatar says

      Hi Glenda, thanks for the comment. I’m sorry you feel I didn’t accurately portray cake culture in America. Sounds like it is much different in the South, an area I’ve traveled to often but obviously don’t know firsthand. The purpose of my weekly Dispatches from England column is simply to compare culture differences I notice as an expat living here. I certainly don’t try to be a spokesperson or expert on all things American or British. I hope you’ll continue reading.

    • avatarMJ says

      OK Glenda Ray— you wanted to put in your two cents about Southern Americans. Now I can put in mine— they are the fattest people in America. By FAR.

  6. avatar says

    Try tiffin, battenburg & vienesse whirls. Also, while in the “exceedingly good” aisle at the supermarket, pick up a box of Mr Kipling’s fruit pies. Always used to love them with custard or ice cream :-)

    • avatarMinerva says

      Please…whilst I am very glad you enjoy your Mr Kipling cakes………

      ……. please, please, don’t set them as a good example of ‘British Cakes’.
      They aren’t.
      They are commercially made, factory produced, fairly ‘long-life’ cakes.
      About as close to a proper homemade cake (that if you are canny, you will find at any GOOD cafe or Women’s Institute market stall) as Candle Wax is to Cheddar.

  7. avatarRoxanne Stickler says

    On a visit to Ironbridge Gorge a year or so ago, we stopped in an antiques business with a tea shop in the back where we had our first slices of Victoria Sponge – I’m a fan for life! Another favorite, though probably not an actual ‘cake’, is the vanilla slice – custard sandwiched between 2-3 layers of puff pastry – yum! When my husband & I would visit my aunt, she usually picked some up for us to enjoy… and we did! =)

  8. avatar says

    I agree that we Brits eat a lot of cake – but find that they are nowhere near as sweet as a typical cake here in the US – a simple Victoria Sponge with jam/and or cream, with icing sugar sprinkled on top is great! Find most desserts in the US to be soooo overly sweet as to make them tasteless (can’t taste anything else!).

    • avatarMary says

      I agree, and I think things are even sweeter than they used to be. I’ve tried those specialty bakeries in the US and I can’t even finish a cupcake (and I have quite a sweet tooth)! The cupcakes I make from my grandmother’s recipe certainly aren’t that sweet.

  9. avatarCharlie says

    You just can’t beat a good slice of lemon drizzle. And I also, quite controversially, love vegetable cakes, where you use veg such as courgette or butternut squash as a replacement for butter (still sweet cakes, you’d never know it was there). Yummy and healthy!…well sort of…

  10. avatar says

    Granny’s Fruit Cake or Country cake from the supermarket is a good everyday fruit cake to have with a cup of tea or coffee. Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells are so good. The fresh cream cakes from a bakery or Marks and Spencer’s food hall Almost everything in M&S food hall is great, a little more expensive, but excellent quality. Go to York and have tea at Betty’s or Taylor’s, try Yorkshire Cheesecake, and this is not cheesecake as Americans know it.
    Mcvities Jamaican Ginger cake is good.
    For something really sweet try a good individual fresh cream meringue.

  11. avatarbrowneyedsusan says

    I fondly remember visiting my family in the Manchester area in the mid-80’s. My aunt called cake, gateaux ( French for cake ) pronounced, gat-oh. She would say gatex :) She also make a bakewell tart and my father’s aunt made a parkin while visiting us in Wisconsin many years ago. She also was from the north. Hearing about Victoria sponge always make me giggle and think of the movie Calendar Girls, how Helen Mirren entered one from M&S in a baking competition :) Truthfully, when I was in England.. I was more interested in the Penguin biscuits and Malteasers :) :) SO much better than the American Whoppers with fake waxy coating… thanks for bringing these memories back to me today :)

  12. avatarbrowneyedsusan says

    Just curious what is pictured above and if you have a recipe to share… Looks so good. Also, is it hard for you to make your favorite American recipes in the UK… as far as measuring ingredients and finding the right sugars, etc I believe they weigh ingredients… was curious if they have measuring cups and measuring spoons…

  13. avatarVicki says

    There are measuring cups and spoons but most recipes in books and magazines give measurement by weight rather than by volume. Kitchen scales are easy to come by and dead easy to use, they have both grammes and kilos, and pounds and ounces. It is the system I have always used and although I own some measuring cups I have never used them for baking.

    As for cake I am very partial to Parkin and usually make one in the autumn I have a great recipe from Yorkshire. A good Victoria sponge is always something to be enjoyed likewise a lemon drizzle. I don’t eat vast quantities of cake though, it’s more of an occasional treat.

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