A crash course in British baking: Cakes and crumpets
For years, I’ve been on a quest to find myself through the top-secret art of tasting and studying food.
I’ve tasted my way through each major event in my adult life: learning to savor wine in France while writing a thesis on the subject, living on a diet of chapati and tea during my first global health expedition to Kenya, earning the nickname “Flour” for my love of unleavened breads during a field trip to India, beginning a frenzied love affair with the vegan scene that landed me an internship as a plant-based baker in Myanmar, writing a personal dissertation on specialty coffee in Austria when my PhD project failed, and learning how holidays are truly meant to be celebrated (complete with music and lots of tamales) by marrying into a Mexican family.
But what about my heritage? And what is British food anyways? This month in Southern Illinois, I've been called to find these answers.
With my father as my volunteer taste-tester and token Englishman, I began a deep dive into British baking. I dug through his old recipe books, listened to his horror stories from the days when he worked in a pub, searched the shelves of our International Grocery store, binge-watched “The Great British Baking Show”, and even learned to use a mixer. Finally, I came to this: there's more to British cuisine than mushy peas and culturally appropriated curry. There's also lots of butter, cream, and buttery baked goods that go well with tea.
The recipes that appear below are the first installment of my own personal great British baking expedition. The first recipe is adapted from the signature chocolate cake on the Great British Baking Show credits, screenshot by my cousin who recently prepared it for my Grandad’s 90th birthday. Next is a jam and cream sandwich-style sponge cake named after Her Majesty herself. Then comes trifles, which is what happened to all the stale cake in the hotel restaurant where my dad worked as a “lad". Finally comes crumpets, a breakfast item I never understood as a child but one I would mock my father for whenever the opportunity presented by putting on my best British accent and asking, “Is it time for crum-pets and tay?”
What comes next? Blood pudding? Spotted dick? No, it's an even greater challenge: creating an awe-inspiring homemade afternoon tea. Enjoy these sweet treats, and please stay tuned for more soon!
The Iconic Great British Bake-Off Chocolate Cake
Adapted from a “Bake Off Box” recipe card used for my Grandad’s 90th birthday
Makes at least 8 slices
For the cake batter:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon flaky sea salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 cup milk (I used oat milk)
1 cup warm water
½ cup vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
For the ganache:
1¼ cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup chocolate chips
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 packets of fresh raspberries, for decorating
Begin by preheating the oven to 350° F.
To make the cake batter, sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the remaining dry ingredients (baking soda, baking powder, sea salt, brown sugar, and cocoa powder) until even.
In a smaller separate bowl, whisk the eggs until combined. Then, whisk in the milk, oil, and warm water.
Using a spatula, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing until there are no flour clumps.
Grease two 9-inch round pans with oil. Pour the cake batter evenly into each of the pans.
Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes or until the surface is slightly springy and a fork comes out clean. Once the cakes are done baking, set them aside for at least 25 minutes to cool before decorating.
While the cakes are baking, make the ganache by heating the whipping cream in a small pot to a simmer. When heated, whisk the brown sugar into the cream.
Place the chocolate chips and butter in a separate medium-sized baking bowl.
Gradually pour the hot whipping cream into the bowl of chocolate chips and butter. Let the mixture stand for about 1 minute before mixing until smooth.
Set the ganache aside for about 20 minutes to thicken.
Once cooled, set the bottom layer of cake onto a serving plate. Cover with the ganache, using a knife or spatula to smooth over the surface of the cake.
Carefully set the second layer of cake on top of the first. Smooth the remaining ganache over the surface and edges of the cake.
Cover the top of the cake evenly with fresh raspberries. Enjoy with a glass of red wine, hot coffee, or black tea.
Queen Victoria Sponge Cake
Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain
Makes at least 10 slices (but save some for the trifle!)
For the cake batter:
8 ounces unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt
Vegetable oil for greasing the pans
For the homemade vanilla whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 teaspoons sugar
For the jam:
2 cups chopped fresh or frozen chopped strawberries
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 white rose teabag (optional)
3 fresh or frozen strawberries
10 fresh or frozen raspberries
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
To make the cake batter, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth.
Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla extract and zest of 1 orange.
Sift the flour into a small, separate bowl. Whisk in the baking powder and salt.
Fold the dry ingredients into the batter, being careful not to over-mix.
Grease two round 9-inch cake pans, and pour the cake batter equally into each pan.
Bake at 350° F for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown around the edges and a fork pricked in the center of the cake comes out clean.
While the cakes are baking, make the jam and whipped cream. Jam can also be made ahead, or store-bought strawberry jam can be used if homemade jam is too heavy a lift.
To make the jam*, heat chopped strawberries and sugar to a simmer on a saucepan.
While the strawberries are heating, pour about 2 tablespoons of boiling water into a small cup. Add a white rose teabag and let the tea brew for about 5 minutes.
Once the tea has brewed, stir the tea and lemon juice into the strawberry mixture.
Continue heating the strawberry mixture at a simmer about 20 minutes, stirring continuously. Once the mixture has come to a desired jam-like consistency, remove from heat, and transfer to a mason jar. Seal and refrigerate until ready to use (lasts up to 1 week).
To make the whipped cream, beat together the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla on high for about 5 minutes or until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use (within the same day).
Once cakes have fully cooled, place the bottom layer on a serving platter.
Spread a generous layer of jam on top of the bottom layer of cake. Layer whipped cream on top of the jam, and place raspberries evenly throughout the cream.
Carefully place the top cake layer onto the bottom layer, creating a sandwich-style stack.
Decorate** the top layer with any remaining whipped cream, strawberries, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Enjoy with a tea latte, like a London Fog (recipe coming soon).
* Note: This was an attempt at Rose Strawberry Jam, adapted from Kylee Cooks' Small-Batch Strawberry Jam recipe. It ended up sweeter than I would like, and the rose taste didn’t quite “come through”. More to come soon!
** Jamie Oliver's recipe recommended decorating with crystalized rose petals. My dad went out with Snowpea to forage for petals but said his roses weren’t quite ready for picking, so this garnish remains to be tested.
Mini Strawberries & Cream Trifles
Makes 4 large servings
Stale cake (I used ½ of the Queen Victoria Sponge Cake above)
Bird’s custard powder (there are no substitutions for this, according to my father)
Homemade vanilla whipped cream
2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries and/or raspberries
Cocoa powder or ground cinnamon for decorating
Eat half of a Queen Victoria Sponge Cake (see the recipe above; you can also enlist family or friends to help you with this step).
With the second half of the Victoria Sponge, separate the two layers of cake apart, and spread leftover strawberry jam (again, see the recipe above) on top of the top surface of each layer (topping up the cream layer on the bottom layer of the Sponge). Chop the cake into 1-inch pieces.
Make 1 package of Bird’s custard***.
Make a fresh batch of Homemade Vanilla Whipped Cream (see the recipe above).
Prepare your fruit by washing, chopping, de-stemming, and placing in a small bowl.
Create the first layer of your trifle by placing the cake pieces jam-side-up at the bottom of 4 clear glasses (I used a combination of wine glasses, mason jars, and ice cream soda glasses).
Place chopped fruit evenly across the cake layer.
Use a spoon to pour custard on top of the fruit.
Spread a layer of whipped cream atop the custard.
Repeat the 4 steps above until you come to the top of the glass.
Cover and chill for at least 1 hour.
When ready to serve, decorate with a sprinkle of cocoa powder or ground cinnamon.
***According to my dad, this is the custard brand to use. I’ve never made it myself, but I believe it involves instant powder and a microwave. Homemade custard may come in a future recipe.
Classic English Crumpets
Adapted from Recipes for an English Tea: A Handbook for Afternoon Tea
Makes about 6 medium-sized crumpets
1¾ cups all-purpose flour****
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup soy milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Vegetable oil for cooking (I used olive oil)
Butter and strawberry jam, for serving
To make the batter, begin by sifting the flour into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the remaining dry ingredients (baking soda, baking powder, sea salt, and brown sugar) until even.
In a separate small bowl, combine soy milk and lemon juice without mixing. Allow them to sit for about 1 minute or until the milk curdles.
Use a spatula to slowly mix the milk mixture into the dry ingredients.
Pour a thin layer of oil onto a skillet, place the skillet onto a burner, and bring to medium heat.
Pour about ½ cup batter onto the skillet, shaping it into a thick circle. Cook on the first side until bubbles appear across its surface (about 3 minutes).
Use a spatula to flip the crumpet***** to its second side and cook until the side touching the skillet begins to brown (about 3 more minutes).
Cook the remaining batter using the same method.
Serve while hot, topping with butter and jam.
**** I also tried making this recipe with whole wheat flour, but the final product ended up being more like dense dog treats.
***** Note: The recipe I used said to flip the crumpet while cooking, which made the crumpets look more like thick pancakes. Most crumpets I’ve seen have had air bubbles on one surface rather than just the middle, which makes me think the crumpet should only be cooked on one side. However, I was unable to fully cook the crumpet when I tried cooking only on one side. My dad had no idea which cooking strategy was correct and said most people just buy them from the store rather than bake them.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of British Baking Month: Afternoon Tea!