Get Baked: The UK Farewell Tour

Today I leave the UK, a country (of countries) that I’ve grown into for the past three years. There are many things I love about the UK — and my city, London, especially — but I can’t say British food ranks particularly high among them. I was deeply baffled when confronted with my first (vegetarian) toad in the hole while living in catered student halls and I die a little inside every time someone travels from half the world away only to insist on their fill of “traditional fish and chips,” which they inevitably never finish, because one has only so much tolerance for grease and blandness.

Desserts, though. If it’s something this country does right in the culinary department, it’s Nigella Lawson. And then cake.

While visiting from Singapore over the past couple of weeks, my partner Natalie worked up in the kitchen a whole bunch of tastes that I’m likely to miss when I leave (even though she’d never tried most of them before) in an attempt to stop me making sad faces at the cat I’m leaving behind. Has it worked? No, not really, for said cat is still curled up on my lap and I’m pausing every couple of minutes to look at her perfect, tiny, fluffy face. Has it been delicious anyway? Yes, yes of course it has.


Plain Scones

Scones are my idea of a perfect cake/pastry/dessert situation, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten a satisfactory answer to “but what are they?” Unlike Jaffa Cakes, which are definitively designated cakes for tax purposes, scones are a rather ambiguously categorised teatime food. And that’s even before you try to wrap your head around how you’re actually supposed to eat them. When I first moved to the UK, I conducted a brief online poll of my British friends consisting of questions like:

Scones?

  • Scohns (as in “HONest”)
  • Scowns (as in “icecream CONES”)

How do you eat ’em?

  • Cut into small pieces with a knife and spread cream and jam onto each individual piece
  • Cut into half and spread cream and jam like a sandwich
  • GRAB THE SCONE WITH YOUR HANDS AND DUNK IT INTO STUFF
  • Some other Cultured Way I will explain in the comments

What’s your jam?

  • Strawberry/raspberry/blueberry/any form of berry
  • How dare you group all the berries together, Fikri, for I have a very specific preference that I will tell you in the comments
  • How dare you group all the berries together, Fikri, when we all know strawberries aren’t REAL berries
  • Marmalade
  • Grape

Their answers were as varied as the River Thames is wide — that is to say, not very, but enough to work up a fair bit of commotion if you walk across the Waterloo Bridge quickly. Like just about everything else in the UK, how you enjoy your scones (scohns?) varies according to region, class, personal preference, and what your local Marks & Spencer had in stock that day.

I don’t know very many people who make scones from scratch, but now you can! According to this very important piece of investigative journalism by Felicity Cloake at The Guardian, the tricks to perfect scones are:

  • Don’t skimp on the raising agent (self-raising flour alone isn’t enough)
  • Work the mixture as little as possible
  • Don’t roll it too thinly before cutting

Our scones (pictured above) were delicious but didn’t rise as much as we’d hoped, possibly because we only realised the oven wasn’t working just as we were about to put them in so they were stored in the fridge for the afternoon and then later carried by hand, uncovered, to a friend’s place half an hour away. (There is no reason to specify that they were uncovered except to highlight my lack of common sense and to perhaps suggest that the secret ingredient is a fair amount of exposure to London’s air pollution.) So what we’ve learnt is that you don’t have to worry too much: the article makes the process sound really intimidating, but the dough is hardier than you’d think.

And check that your g*ddamn oven is working.

Adapted from Rachel Allen: Bake! (Good Food Channel)

Ingredients

  • 500 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 heaped tsp baking soda
  • 5-7 tsp lemon juice*
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 125 g chilled unsalted butter, cubed
  • 50 g caster sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 275 ml buttermilk or milk, plus extra for the egg wash

(* The original recipe calls for 2 heaped tsp cream of tartar. We used lemon juice as a substitute to act as an acid to react with the alkaline baking soda. We also used some to sour the milk in place of buttermilk.)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 220ºC.

Chop the butter into small pieces. (If your hands are very warm, coat your fingers in a bit of flour.) Sift the flour, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Repeatedly ignore your girlfriend’s requests to “hold still for a second so I can take a picture.” Add the sugar and mix well.

Add the lemon juice to the milk. Set aside about a third of the beaten egg and combine the rest with the milk, then add to the flour mixture and mix briefly to combine into a moist dough. Place on a lightly floured work surface and knead ever so slightly to bring together, then press or roll out to a thickness of 2-3cm.

Using a 6cm round cutter (or an old soup can, which is all we had lying around), cut out the scones and place on a floured baking tray.

Add about a teaspoon or so of milk to the remainder of the beaten egg to make an egg wash. Brush the scones with the egg wash and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown on top.

BONUS TIP: If your oven is not working, do not microwave them. It is not as good an idea as it sounds in your head, the kitchen will smell terrible for hours and you’ll never live it down. JUST DON’T DO IT.

Serve while hot with clotted cream (or butter if you can’t find it) and jam.


Scone and Butter Pudding

When you make both a batch of scones and an impromptu birthday cake in a day, you’re bound to have leftovers a few days later. Eat the birthday cake, because birthday cake is delicious. Cream tea is also delicious, but anyone who’s been to Cornwall for more than three hours can tell you that there’s only so much clotted cream a human body is capable of consuming.

I first had scone and butter pudding (instead of the more traditional bread-based variety) at Cafe Concerto in York, a restaurant that was, coincidentally, recommended to me by a Straddler I’d met at London Pride just the day before. And it blew my mind. Two of my favourite desserts! In one! And then I went on about it enough until Natalie resigned herself to making it for me, because she is the best.

Adapted from Celtnet Recipes

Ingredients

  • 50 g sultanas
  • 50 g dried apricots, chopped
  • 50 ml whisky
  • 50 g caster sugar
  • 2 drops vanilla extract
  • 300 ml milk*
  • 300 ml double cream
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 75 g butter

(* We used a mix of hazelnut and almond milk in place of dairy, and while the end result tasted lovely, the texture was grainy, a little like curdled cream.)

Combine the dried fruit and whisky (we used fruit juice instead) in a bowl. Ideally, cover and set aside to plump and soak for 2 hours, but nobody has time for that so we just microwaved it for a bit. (We also didn’t use half as much dried fruit as the recipe calls for — we just picked out raisins from granola, which most people later picked out from the pudding anyway.)

Preheat the oven to 200ºC.

Whisk together the milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract.

Slice off the tops of the scones and then slice each one into three rounds. Butter each slice of scone then layer with the fruit in a buttered dish.

Pour in the egg and cream mix then cover and set aside for 1 hour. (Again, we didn’t really bother with this. If you do, your scones should soak up most of the liquid, so reserve some liquid to pour in before baking.)

Bake for 40 minutes, or until slightly risen and golden brown on top.


Victoria Sponge Cake

Here’s a fun(?) fact about Queen Victoria, the great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth and the monarch after whom this dessert is named: she was the one who gave Royal Assent to Britain’s anti-gay law criminalising sex between men — but not women. (This law was only repealed in 1967, and is still modelled in the Penal Codes of many Commonwealth countries – including the one I’m flying home to — today. Yeah, you really can’t write anything about Britain without finding yourself standing in the shadow of its colonial legacy.) There’s an urban myth that women were excluded from the legislation because Queen Victoria couldn’t possibly imagine women doing such obscene things, but it’s probably just that: an urban myth. Still makes a good story though.

Monarchy and Victorian morality aside, this is a damn good cake and the last of my favourite British desserts. When I was in New York for just three weeks a couple of years ago, Natalie brought me to Tea & Sympathy to satisfy my cravings for it because that’s how much I love this cake, you guys. (It wasn’t great tbh, but can you really resist a shop called Tea & Sympathy?)

Adapted from Jamie’s Home Cooking Skills

Ingredients

Sponge

  • 225 g unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
  • 225 g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 225 g caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 lemon

Filling

  • 250 g fresh strawberries
  • 150 g strawberry jam
  • 150 ml double cream
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • Icing sugar for dusting (optional)

 

Preheat the oven to 180ºC.

 

Grease the bottom and sides of two 20cm sandwich cake tins with butter. (We just used one large rectangular cake tin and later cut it into half to make two layers, because that’s all we had and I like sharp corners.) Line the base of each tin with greaseproof paper, then dust the sides lightly with flour.

 

Beat the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until very light and fluffy. Ideally you’d use a food processor or mixer, but Natalie didn’t know I had one and is super sexy working with her hands anyway (not pictured, sorry). Make bad jokes about beating the butter into submission. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each one in well before you add the next.

Sift in the flour, mixing every once in a while to incorporate. Finely grate the lemon then fold the zest into the mixture.

Spread the cake mix in the tin(s) using and even it out with an offset spatula, or whatever you have on hand. Resist excessively smoothing the top. Lining the kitchen counter with a tea towel or something, rap the tin(s) firmly a few times to knock out any large air pockets.

Bake for around 20 minutes, or until lightly golden brown and risen. Check to see if the cake is cooked by sticking a skewer into the middle. If it comes out clean the cake’s cooked; if slightly sticky, it needs a bit longer.

Allow the cakes to cool slightly in the tins, then carefully turn them out on a rack to cool completely.

Our cake turned out slightly bubbly and uneven because we messed up the raising agents — we didn't have self-raising flour, so we used plain flour with baking powder and soda (by accident), so by the end of it we weren't 100% sure what went in it. BUT it goes to show that you can mess things up and still make delicious cake.

Our cake turned out slightly bubbly and uneven because we messed up the raising agents — we didn’t have self-raising flour, so we used plain flour with baking powder and soda (by accident), so by the end of it we weren’t 100% sure what went in it. BUT it goes to show that you can mess things up and still make delicious cake.

Slice the strawberries. Add the cream to a bowl with the sugar, and squeeze in the juice from the zested lemon. Whip until you have soft peaks. Make more bad kinky jokes about your credentials as a top.

The original recipe calls for a complicated process involving a vanilla pod and warmed jam (that does not sound fun to wash up), but we opted to just layer the jam, strawberries, then cream.

Place the second (half of the) layer on top, like a sandwich. Cut off the edges for a neater finish (as I prefer) or leave it as it is so the cream and jam drips off the side (as Natalie prefers). Dust with icing sugar, if you’d like.

PUT IT IN YOUR FACE. Cake keeps, covered and chilled, for three days-ish.

Fikri has written 62 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Safe and happy travels Fikri!!
    London will wake tomorrow wondering why it feels a little greyer…may your next adventure be all you could desire and more.

    Mmmmmm British cakes….this is DEFINITELY what I miss the most about the UK. I keep planning my fantasy of opening a “proper” teashop here. I’m opting for bakewell tart in both blackcurrant and raspberry versions, walnut and coffee cake, lemon verbena and ginger clotted cream icecream, coconut creme brulee with tamarind layer in the bottom, and scones with all the trimmings, because of course!

    The cakes in north America are waaaaaay too sweet for my tastebuds, so my cakes/desserts will be all about the flavours – fruit! spices! nuts! creeeeaaaaammmmm!
    I will happily come up with awesome versions to accommodate any dietary needs – who’s up for a cuppa?

    • Thank you! I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the day, but by the end of my time there I’d begun tiring of London’s sunshine (it got really hot! And the tube, oh god, the tube in summer…) — though it probably says plenty about the extent to which I’d assimilated into British culture that no weather was satisfactory to me.

      The next phase in my life actually begins in North America in just under a month now, so I too volunteer as guinea pig for the gay agenda.

  2. Thank you for the Victoria Sponge Cake recipe. It looks delicious. I’ve made scones a few times and what struck me is that they are the sweeter cousin of the biscuit of the American South. So that’s how I define them to people.

    As to Queen Victoria, heh, I love that you say her inability to imagine lesbian sex is probably an urban myth. Victoria certainly loved sexy times with her consort, Prince Albert, more than the babies who followed, so I don’t think she was a closeted lady-lover (My bet is the two Stuart queens, Mary II and Anne, would have been down with that). But the idea that her ignorance is an urban myth makes me enjoy the fantasy of her being a secret ally to lesbians.

    • At the first A-Camp (which happened about half a year after I first moved to London), we were served biscuits. I saw them and I was like “hey this is familiar to me!” but then there was gravy and they tasted nothing like scones and I was very confused by the whole experience. Tasty though.

  3. I had a similar dilemma to the sconversation when I went to the US to try and work out what a biscuit is and what you are supposed to achieve with it.

    Cheese scones are also delightful for savoury afternoon teas.

    • Biscuits were such a bone of contention between myself and my friend from Kentucky, we disgusted each other for a while when I said I dunk mine in tea and she said she covered hers in gravy, til we figured out we were talking about entirely different foodstuffs.

  4. I miss British cakes so much! I will have to eat lots of them when I’m briefly back in the UK during the summer.

    Back when I taught at a German summer school every year, the other British teachers and I started a tradition of mass-producing scones to hand out to the students to compensate for the fact that the American teachers were perceived as inherently cooler. The Americans were still cooler than us, but the scones always went down well!

    • Are there no local Brits you can have tea parties with? My parents used to have afternoon tea with other Brits on Sundays when they lived in Italy. They made Chelsea buns and other traditional fare. They managed to get their Italian friends obsessed with trifle and shortbread. 30 years on and we still send them an M&S selection at Christmas.

  5. Ooooh, but Tea and Sympathy has wonderful scones! Or at least, wonderful to a person who lived in France and not the UK. Also try Alice’s Tea Cup next time you hit NYC! It’s a little cheesy (based off Alice in Wonderland) but I love all that cheese.

  6. When I spot someone’s made scones I’m always filled with joy for a moment and then it turns to apprehension and where it goes from there depends on whether or not there are sultanas in said scones. Sometimes when I’m really desperate I’ll pick them out; one school I worked in there was a lovely lady who made scones every Tuesday, but ALWAYS with sultanas, and eventually she must have gotten sick of seeing the little pile of sultanas on my plate after cuz she started making a couple without them especially 🙂

    • I never know how to feel about sultanas. I like them on their own and I appreciate that they add some diversity in taste/texture in things like scones and bread & butter pudding, but they always seem unwelcome nonetheless. Either way, I strongly believe plain scones are the way to go because chances are 80% of your guests will pick them out, or merely consume them out of politeness.

    • Ha, I should qualify that I’m vegetarian! But even in my meat-eating days I never really understood the appeal beyond a couple of mouthfuls. And it had to be by the beach. I can eat a ridiculous amount of chips (my partner can verify this, because she usually watches while making weirded out faces and repeating “I don’t understand you”) but I’m not sure I’ve ever finished a serving of battered fish.

  7. The lack of trifle in the list saddens me. That and brandy snaps. Love a scone; and its scohn, I’m led to believe, because of the pronunciation by the natives of the town they’re named after.
    Best of luck in all your travels away from Blighty…do pop back for a trifle.

    • Ahh trifle! Why didn’t I think of that. I first had it while staying as a WWOOFer on a smallholding in Essex and it was so lovely, though it then became very hard to find anywhere else that produced trifle that good.

      The best response I got to the scone/scohn question was “I pronounce it ‘scone’ because ‘scohn’ just sounds pretentious in my Northern accent.” (It didn’t actually! But to each their own.)

  8. Just chiming in to prolong the scone devotion.
    My favourite scones are date scones, or scones made with mashed pumpkin and dates, hot from the oven, with butter and jam. Great stuff, Fikri.

  9. My favourite thing about travelling around the UK is trying all the local cakes from each area. Welsh cakes, Dundee cake, Bakewell tart, Eccles cakes. There’s barely a town in the country without it’s own baked goods. And we haven’t even mentioned the cheese!

  10. Best of luck with everything Fikri!

    Being Australian I say “Scones” as in HONest. Best enjoyed with home made quince jelly / Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam and lashings of cream.

    My scone recipe is very basic: self raising flour, butter and milk. They never make it further than the kitchen table and as a child we would often burn our fingers snatching them off just-out-of-the-oven tray.

    Also, that super smooth cake top is officially cake porn.

    Oh, and don’t be afraid to literally drop your cake tin from about shoulder height onto the bench to get rid of air holes. It really works!

  11. mmmmmmmmmm, scones with cream and jam!!!!!

    did a lot of French pastry baking at one time culminating in Gateau St. Honore………hours of prep ….eaten in ten minutes…..oy!

  12. But oh dear………why is there lemon juice,egg wash, and sugar in the scone recipe?!? I agree with Ellaria, just flour, raising agent, butter, and a splash of milk.

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