In my mind, British baking is basic, sensible, economical and comforting, but never boring. And there’s always a story, a reason, a purpose behind every recipe. In fact, if British baking were a novel it would be a darn good read – a story of great resourcefulness, rivalry, tradition, restraint and loyalty.
If you want resourcefulness baked into anything, go no further than a batch of Cornish pasties. Initially created as a clever way for labourers in the Cornwall area in the 1700s to take their hearty meat and vegetable lunch to work in one convenient parcel, the traditional version of the Cornish pasty has protected status under the European Commission, so only those made in the Cornwell area or those made to a traditional recipe can be known by this name. We've made our our potato hand pie version inspired by the Cornish pasty.
For an example of rivalry of the culinary kind, consider the fiery debate over the origins of parkin. Yorkshire and Lancashire both lay claim to this comforting gingerbread-like cake made with oats and treacle. Traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night (5 November), a taste of this hearty cake will instantly reveal why both counties want to claim it as their own.
Undisputedly originating in Lancashire, Eccles cakes were made in the town of the same name back in the 17th century during the religious Eccles Wakes feast day held in August. Like mince pies they were actually banned by Cromwell’s Puritans, but the addictive combination of spiced dried fruits encased in a buttery flaky pastry has withstood the test of time, and Eccles cakes represent solid tradition on an afternoon tea plate.
The original Scottish shortbread – made from leftover bread dough (hence its name) combined with yeast and oatmeal, sprinkled with sugar and baked in a very slow oven – is much more about restraint than the buttery melt-in-the-mouth treat I make today, based on my Scottish great-aunt Anne’s recipe. The hard, dry and sturdy 12th century version had a long shelf-life and was, importantly, perfect for carrying around in pockets. Shortbread was also connected with traditions such as decorating the threshold of a newly married couple’s home in the Shetland and Orkney Isles, where it was also broken over their heads. The shape of traditional shortbread – a circle pinched around the edges – was believed to resemble the sun’s rays by early Scots sun-worshippers or, alternatively, a dressmaker’s pattern for a full petticoat. Either way, and despite its humble origins, 21st century shortbread is eaten with absolutely no restraint in my household.
The folk of the Derbyshire Dales, meanwhile, are extremely loyal to the tart traditionally baked as a pudding in the town of Bakewell in the 1800s. Reflecting the early British baking tradition of layering jam and/or fruit with a cake-like mixtures made from eggs, butter and sugar, the Bakewell tart came into its own with its unique pastry base and the addition of almond meal to the cake.
And let’s end on a high (if comforting and economical) note with the Queen of puddings – the ultimate retro British dessert. This is real nursery food made cleverly using the most basic of ingredients to create layers of bready custard, jam and soft meringue. It’s a combination that will warm your soul, keep the purse strings pulled tight, and provide the perfect final chapter to a simple and fuss-free story that’s still packed with character and drama. British baking, a jolly fine show indeed!
Anneka's British baking recipes
Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. Read our interview with her or for hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Kerrie Ray. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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