In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks (or just a tad engrossed in the olympic efforts of Team GB), the Great British Bake Off is back. The end of August marks the beginning of the latest series and opening night for this year’s batch of (carefully selected for entertainment purposes) baking hopefuls.
And so to celebrate we bring you the Love Cottages Guide to Great Britain’s Best Bakes – that’s our favourite homegrown baked goods, between you and me. We bring you signature British bakes, some may be showstoppers in your baking eyes, but we’re definitely not promising any technical expertise (just personal, probably hashed, favourites). We can’t promise any accolades from the silver fox either. And while we might be hopeful that Mary would be complimentary about a morsel or two, we’re more interested in which are your favourite bakes. So which is it to be?
The cake episode is as broad as broad can be, though we can’t help but opt for a classic (also known as Victoria Sandwich) to start with. As its name suggest, this quintessentially British teatime treat became popular during Victorian times as a sweet option for ‘nursery tea’ because it was thought that children might not cope with the bits and pieces in the more traditional teatime fruit cake.
Top tip: the Women’s Institute stipulates serving with a raspberry jam filling (although we do like to add some buttercream for spot of 21st century decadence) and a dusting of caster sugar.
A huge fan of carrot cake, I’m much less a fan of walnuts. So I inspect carrot cake offerings with a suspicious eye when out and about. Beyond the personal carrot conflict, the Carrot Museum (alas not an actual museum but an online encyclopaedia dedicated to carrots), tells me that the origins of this deliciously moist and naturally sweet cake are somewhat disputed. The historical conclusion is that it evolved from varieties of carrot pudding, which dates back to medieval times (think pumpkin pie or plum pudding if it helps the imagination).
Once seen as the healthy cake because of its vegetable content (another 1970s culinary hiccough), its calorific reality is now realised. Boo! The carrots aren’t really there for health purposes more for texture – switch the carrot for parsnip or beetroot and you’ll see what I mean. Now what lured me to this delight as a child was the buttercream topping and mini marzipan carrot decorations, but a certain Nigel Slater has a brighter and tastier idea swapping the butter for mascarpone (no obvious health benefits there either).
Top tip: leave the walnuts out!
Biscuits & traybakes
It seems a little odd to combine these two very different treats, but that is was three rounds of biscuit making in one episode have caused to occur. And so we bring you one great British version of each, although there’s actually a very Scottish influence here.
We bow down to the Scots for this fabulously moorish and buttery biscuit that evolved from medieval twice cooked (the original meaning of ‘biscuit’) bread that eventually had the yeast replaced by butter. And we have one feisty woman to thank for its continuation. Mary, Queen of Scots, who is said to have brought much French influence to an otherwise slow to evolve Scottish cuisine, was apparently a fan.
Top tip: swap wheat flour for rice flour to provide a grainier texture
Tiffin has its roots in Troon in the early 1900s. It seems we’ve also unintentionally taken a calorific tack because tiffin’s ‘all-in’ composition leaves no room for dieter’s doubt! In fact, in our house, we chuck in anything remotely yummy (or simply leftover) that’ll add another texture to this fridge cake.
Traditionally the recipe combines crushed digestive biscuits, sugar, golden syrup, raisins and cocoa either mixed with or covered by melted chocolate. Five minutes later you squish it into a tray and put in the fridge to set. Last minute ‘argh, I forgot the cake’ moments are a thing of the past; this is your new, life saving afternoon tea provision.
Top tip: add in dried cranberries for a spot of tartness and mini marshmallows for a chewy texture
I have distinct memories of making this at school. I don’t recall it being it particularly inedible (or edible for that matter), but surely it’s a lesser known and lesser seen loaf today that’s worthy of a modern nod. An English bread, it’s recognisable for its two tier shape that’s thought to have come about to save space in bread ovens.
Most popular during the mid 19th century, us convenience seeking moderners don’t care much for the hassle of slicing oddly shaped round loaves, or slicing at all come to think of it. We can only hope that Great British Bake Off contestants give it some love.
Top tip: apparently quite tricky to make from scratch, it’s the perfect novelty loaf to make cheaply with kids using a pre-prepared bread mix
That round thing you put a burger in. What do you call it? T’up north it’s a barm cake – a round, soft bread roll typically found in Manchester and North West England. It would traditionally be leavened using barm, an alternative rising agent to yeast, that’s actually the scum that forms during the fermentation process of beer or wine. Yummy?!
If you’re not from the north of England, you’ll probably refer to this type of bread roll as something else (maybe, quite simply, as a bread roll!). Where I come from it’s known as a ‘cob’ although us Midlanders like them a bit crustier. In West Yorkshire and maybe Cumbria you might find it referred to as a ‘teacake’ (not to be confused with a currant teacake), or in the North East as a ‘stottie’.
Top tip: best eaten with lashings of salty butter, thick slices of freshly slices ham off the bone and a smear of hot English mustard
Puddings and pies
Sometimes savoury, sometimes sweet, savoury puddings have a very historical feel to them while sweet puddings have a distinct 70s air. So let’s bust some pudding and pie myths and get these delights back on our dinner tables.
Steak & kidney pie
Traditionally a pudding rather than a pie we can trace the dish back to the 1860s and Mrs Beeton’s cookbook, although the concept of savoury and sweet puddings had been around for centuries by then.
It’s not complicated: steak, kidney, onions, gravy encased in a suet based pastry. This is the food of an industrial age that has evolved to keep its place in British cuisine culture and on modern British menus (at home and in the poshest of restaurants).
I can’t mention this pie without referring to Fray Bentos – this was my grandfather’s easy one-man supper that involved nothing more than removing the lid off the tin and putting the rest in the oven. Half an hour or so later, hey presto, there’s a stonkingly good steak and kidney pie, and the earliest iteration of ready meals.
Top tip: add in an oyster or two for a truly traditional take on this recipe – go on, try it!
Bread & butter pudding
There are almost too many options to choose from on the pudding front: steamed pudding, treacle sponge, sticky toffee pudding, jam roly poly, spotted dick. The list of perfectly stodgy Sunday roast desserts is endless, but we’ve opted for an often poorly prepared and particularly bland offering that can be delightful, honest.
Top tip: switch the sliced white for brioche, switch the milk for cream, for an extra twist make it a chocolately mixture, alternate the bread with banana slices for some added sweetness and ditch the raisins/sultanas, and for the ultimate wow factor make the mixture with Baileys (other brands of Irish cream liqueur are available).
Do you have a preference for shortcrust or puff pastry? Are puff and flaky pastry the same thing? Is sweet pastry as tricky to make as they say it is? We’ll leave all of those challenges to the Bake Off contestants and leave you to choose your favourite crust as we wend our way through some great British pastry recipes.
This icon of Cornwall, thought to have been in some form of production in the county since the 1300s, now has Protected Geographical Indication status. That means you can’t call it a Cornish pasty unless it originated from Cornwall. But where did it come from originally? Historians can trace the pasty back to France or at least the French for filled pastry.
Nowadays, this unassuming savoury parcel accounts for 6% of Cornwall’s food economy and is expected to have its own museum in St Austell in the near future – put that on your Cornwall to do list!
Top tip: the traditional and protected recipe includes beefs, diced potato, swede (or turnip as it’s known in Cornwall) plus onion with salt and pepper seasoning.
Let’s have a sweet pastry to compliment and head up north for it too. The town of Eccles was once part of Lancashire but now sits within Greater Manchester. It was the corner of Vicarage Road and St Mary’s Road that was home to the shop that first sold these flaky pastry cakes filled with currents.
There’s no protected status for the Eccles cake (yet). So anywhere can make and sell these fruity pastry pies and call them Eccles cakes, although they’re also known as Squashed Fly Cake (logic and base humour at their best there).
Top tip: switch the currants for stewed apples and you’ve got Blackburn cake
We couldn’t do great British desserts without including trifle. This dessert oddity that smacks of 1970s foodie confusion combines sponge, jelly, soft fruit, custard and cream in the main, though it wouldn’t be a trifle without a splash of something from your auntie’s liquor trolley. Typically a dish that rears its head at Christmas, there are many recipe variations, but I’m delighted to say my nan had the best recipe of all (naturally) and would undoubtedly have made her Star Baker.
Top tip: trifle sponges made into raspberry jam sandwiches to line the bottom of the bowl and soaked in sherry; a scattering of raspberries; a layer of firm raspberry jelly; a layer of thick-set custard (no added sugar); finished with thick-whipped cream and if my mother has her way a scattering of sliced almonds (but you can guess what I think to that!).
Our food snobbery of the last ten or twenty years may well have seen us swap the pain of shortcrust pastry for the arguably greater pain of caramelised apples in the trendy tarte tatin, but the apple pie is a great British bake. Seemingly not: it has varying origins and recipes in the Netherlands, France and Sweden too.
The first known recipe in England appeared in 1381 and called for good apples, good spices, figs, raisins and pears cased in pastry. Back in the days when fresh apples weren’t available all year round, the dish would be made with dried or preserved apples instead.
Top tip: make like the Dutch and add a layer of marzipan to the bottom of your pie – it’s delicious! Then choose how you want it served: custard, cream or ice cream?
We could go on: scones, plum pudding, yule log, bara brith, iced buns, cheese twists… But for now, Paul Hollywood eat your heart out. Everyone else: get the kettle on; Bake Off is back!