The Serious Eats Guide to British Sweets
The British love sweets. Cut us and we bleed custard. Next time you hear the national anthem, listen ever so closely and among all the pomp you can pick out the word "biscuit" surreptitiously mumbled least seven times.
We love little squares of things on bone china plates served on an afternoon following a game of cribbage. We love puddings that steam like a behemoth emerging from a sauna, made from beef fat, treacle, and shriveled fruit. We love sugared, crunchy things from packets. It's no overstatement to say tea and biscuits are our actual lifeblood.
You see, sweets to the British are all about the emotions. Our climate and stoicism means we require sweets for more than just a sugar fix or addendum to prior courses—they're our national comfort blanket. It's no place for subtlety either, no fine pastries, delicate sugarwork, tuiles, or twists. No nonsense and no frills. So what makes us tick?
I was completely blown away when I discovered just how many of our national sweets are based on dried fruit. With the exception of those under the age of 14, who tend to hold them with derision like dead flies, we're a nation of sultana scoffers, currant connoisseurs, and fig fiddlers.
One subject that has swallowed thousands of hours of British debate is the pronunciation of the word scone. If you want to sound snooty, rhyme it with "own". If you want to sound authentic, go with "con." These individual buns are un-yeasted so quite dense. Always split them and spread with jam and, if you can find it, clotted cream. Shop-bought scones can be chalky; the desired effect for a home-baked scone is something with a crusty golden surface and airy centre.
A sweet fruit bread dough made with rendered pig's fat (lard), sometimes milk, and usually sultanas (raisins) and citrus peel, depending on the region. The dough is rolled and folded to leave a rather fetching '70s-swirly-curtain finish, and it's cooked to form one shallow loaf for slicing and serving with butter. The grand doyenne of British cooking, Elizabeth David, recommended flipping the cooked bread upside down to let the lard trickle through it in a sinister stream, which is just one of many reasons she's so great.
Given that "popping on the kettle" is a national sport, there's no shortage of sweet regional tea breads to accompany our beloved char. Pretty much all of these breads contain dried fruits. These include the Welsh bara brith, which actually contains tea, Scottish Selkirk bannock and Irish barmbrack. These are all baked in loafs or cobs, then sliced as you would a standard bread. They're sometimes toasted at breakfast too.
Rolled yeasted bread buns studded with currants. They have a slight hint of cinnamon or other warm spice, like nutmeg, and they're baked in a doughnut-sized snail shape. They're topped with a light, transparent sugar glaze. As they're individual buns, they don't require slicing and one is more likely to be eaten as a dessert in itself.
Mention trifle to a Brit born before 1960 and they're likely to go cross-eyed, loll a tongue at you, and start wittering on about Roy Castle. This retro, layered dessert is almost camp in its multi-colored brashness. Its bedrock is a sponge, sometimes encased in Jell-O, followed by a thick custard subsoil, whipped cream surface, and scattering of grated dark chocolate or a kitsch cherry. It's usually assembled in a glass bowl to display the layers in all their finery. Of the many, many flavur options, sherry, strawberry, orange and cherry are most popular.
A midweek dessert so American I refuse to believe it wasn't conceived in 1970s Burbank. Not that I'm saying all American desserts look like a cloud, taste like strawberry cotton wool, and come out of a packet (please don't take this the wrong way). Appealingly, all that's required of the home cook is to whisk the four-serving pouch of fruit-flavored custard powder with milk, leave it to thicken into a shiny frothy mousse, then eat with spoons. Simples.
A traditional Scottish dessert made primarily from whipped double cream seasoned with fresh raspberries and toasted oatmeal added in equal parts. It's usually sweetened with heather honey for an extra touch of the Highlands and served cold with optional dribble of whisky.
Infamously created in the private boys school Eton when a dish of meringue and whipped, sweetened double cream was dropped and ended up broken into pieces. Modern interpretation goes something along the lines of a deconstructed pavlova. The cream is chilled and fruit, usually berries, folded through. The size of the meringue chunks is left to the whim of the rolling pin, but never more than a one-bite shard.
A suet-based pudding with fruit or jam, rolled into a log a bit like a Swiss roll, then boiled, sliced into 1-2 inch horizontal slices and served with custard. It's also known as a "dead man's arm" as its hardly a subtle, petite little thing.
Another rib-sticking suet pudding, this time with raisins and few flavorings beside, although citrus peel wouldn't be inauthentic. It's steamed in a basin bowl so it looks a little like a Play Doh fez. Spotted refers to the fruit. What dick refers to is anyone's guess (no sniggering at the back). We'd serve this with hot custard or cold cream to contrast with the dense, cloying, chewy cake.
One of the only examples of a shop-bought sweet having the edge over homemade. Only a robot could make such a perfect cylindrical ice cream log surrounded by the suitably modest 1-cm thick sponge jacket and coquettish layer of jam as glue. It's sliced horizontally and served, in my family at least, with extra cream, which seems a tad excessive in retrospect.
The base for this quick, simple, savior-for-the-disorganized-entertainer dessert is always pureed or semi-crushed fruit. A sweetened cream is folded in—usually icing sugar is used for an even blend—or a custard, or you can serve the two layered if preferred. Fool is usually made with gooseberries, strawberries, or raspberries. It's serve in individual glasses chilled to a fluffy set.
This pastry puck filled with dense fruit mincemeat* tells you everything you'd ever want to know about the cuisine of its birth county, Lancashire. These cakes have been reclaimed by London's St John restaurant, who serve it with strong cheese. The pastry should be flaky and leaning away from shortcrust towards puff but falling somewhere in between. The filing should match the pastry in ratio and the top should be sprinkled with sugar crystals. One is enough for an individual portion, and they can be served warm from the oven or cooled.
*NB: A note on mincemeat. This is a sweet yet foreboding dark, slightly-liquid concoction made from dried fruit, citrus peel, and usually a spirit. In ye auld worlde it contained actual meat. These days it usually has a only a peppering of shredded suet to honor its savory-sounding name. It's stored in jars and usually languishes at the back of cupboards for at least a decade.
This Derbyshire dessert consists of a crisp pastry base filled with two layers—a base layer of cherry conserve with a topping of almondy sponge. The shallow tart is baked until the sponge is golden and caramelized on top. It's then scattered with flaked almonds or festooned with a thick layer of white fondant icing. Bakewells come in large standard pie-shapes, or individual bakes.
Nobody does doughnuts quite like the Americans, but we did invent the cronut. Just kidding! This take on a doughnut does predate Dominique Ansel's version though. It's essentially a twisted doughnut sabre with a sticky glaze that you'd find in any no-nonsense high street baker. The glaze is almost crunchy and the dough a little like milk bread. It's deep-fried, like all good doughs, but served cool.
Another staid shortcrust base, this time filled with a set egg custard hidden beneath a baked-on layer of grated nutmeg. Custard tarts can be anything up to 1-inch deep and made as one large pie or in individual portions. In Yorkshire, they have their own version, a curd tart with an added scattering of beloved currants. These are seriously addictive babies—the slightly gelatinous, yellow cartoon custard flips the bird at your fancy "creme anglaise."
Versions of flapjacks appear all around the world under various guises: cereal bar, granola bar, or even plain old oat bar. In the UK, we use the term to describe a chewy, baked, individual snack bar made from rolled oats, butter and honey or syrup. The bold and gallant can add dried fruit, nuts, seeds or chocolate chips, or even a drizzle of melted chocolate on top. Most newsagents sell factory-produced, cellophane-wrapped flaps on the counter, occasionally offering a "yogurt topped" version, featuring a soft set creamy top layer—pondering how they achieve this from a liquid dairy product keeps me awake at night.
Contrary to its Germanic name, this checkerboard log cake is steadfastly English. It's achievable at home if you're a master of tinfoil folding, but Mr Kipling do an inspired range of mini Battenbergs. Ordinarily I'd never call anything other than a kitten's whisker or a gurgling baby "cute"...but they are so cute. The whole log is mildly almond flavored, and the pink color is achieved with artificial colors rather than berries or anything natural. The sweet marzipan jacket ramps up the nuttiness and nothing other than melted jam holds the whole wonder together, which deserves a sax solo in itself.
Poor Guy Fawkes. Not only did he fail in his gunpowder plot, but his effigy is still mindlessly burned every November 5th under the thin premise it's for "Bonfire Night," which everyone knows was only invented for eating hot dogs and parkin. This moist, tray baked sponge is made from treacle and oatmeal and has a soft texture and gloss surface. It's served un-iced and cut into small squares.
For all the coffee cakes, fudge brownies, and lemon drizzles that have followed in its path, this regal sandwich cake is pretty much the finest example of simple British baking. Two airy vanilla sponges are cooled then filled with up to an inch of buttercream (a heavenly blend of one part butter to two parts icing sugar), plus a generous smear of raspberry or strawberry jam and a top layer of crunchy caster sugar or decorative icing sugar. It's served sliced in wedges and eaten with a dainty fork.
Sticky toffee pudding
The extreme moistness of this almost muffin-like baked dessert comes from the addition of dates, yet another dried fruit that's used for little more than STP in the UK. The dense, individually portioned sponge cake is served as a cube or dome with a cascading brown sugar-based caramel sauce, which should be of a loose viscosity. If that's insufficient moisture for the diner, a dollop of ice cream or splash of custard is often added, which melds with the toffee into an exquisite soupy mix.
The best thing about Welsh cuisine is that it has names that sound like the residents of Mordor—cawl, crempogau, lobscows. These flat, beer mat-sized patties are cooked on a griddle, dusted with sugar, and served with optional butter. They have a crumbly, close texture a little like a scone, and are only lightly sweetened. And they're also known as picau ar y maen. Fantastic.
Dorset apple cake
We may not have abundant stocks of paw paw, lychee, and persimmon, but one thing we're guaranteed to always have on hand is the dependable apple. Folk from the coastal county of Dorset bake them into a moist sponge cake with sultanas. Of course. It has a no-nonsense, pastoral finish, and served cut into wedges.
You'll find everything you need to know about the excellent composition of a Jaffa cake from this roving piece of on-the-ground investigative journalism. These small round pucks consist of a crispy dark chocolate top layer, a just-tart set orange jam core, and a spongy but firm 'biscuit' base. But is it a biscuit or a cake? According to the taxman, it's a cake. Don't agree? Tell it to the judge.
Scotland is home to the boffin who conceived the deep-fried Mars Bar, but it's also home to shortbread. Picture a buttery crumbly biscuit with a sugar topping, usually shaped into two-inch long fingers, small rounds, or novelty thistle shapes to sell to tourists.
These smooth, cream-colored, thin biscuits were immortalized by comedian Peter Kay who says they should be renamed "one dips" as, despite their main purpose of being served with tea, are no way robust enough to handle our dunking action. This brand of comedy might be lost in translation, but here's the video anyway. They're lightly sweetened and unadorned, save for a silky surface texture and stamped design, and have a truly great snap.
This is another branded biscuit for enjoying with tea. Most biscuit tins will have a packet of these understated cookies that have a faint salty taste, toffee brown color, and crunchy texture. You can now buy these sweet, thin, crunchy wheat biscuits with chocolate or caramel toppings. (See our taste test here).
Nobbly and oaty by their own description, these are similar to digestives but surpass them in the texture and flavor stakes. Unlike Rich Tea, they can handle at least three seconds in tea and are probably the best biscuits in the world. Their beauty lies in their slightly salty tang.
Two very mildly-flavored cocoa biscuits—almost a whisper of chocolate—in a domino shape sandwiching a thin layer of hard buttercream. They're so unassuming you can demolish around 10 in one sitting. In fact, my (clinically addicted) brother used to eat Jenga towers worth of them growing up.
An iconic and rather novel branded shortbread biscuit. The factory process renders the biscuit less authentic than Scottish shortbread, but it still has the buttery element. The two round biscuits are smooth on the surface but crumbly to the bite, and offset with a layer of adhesive raspberry jam, which peeks coquettishly from a cut-out heart. There are perfectly good imitators on the market, and they can be easily made at home.
Named after the Italian revolutionary, these thin, crispy biscuits with raisins were actually invented in London. They consist of a raisin layer sandwiched by two pale biscuits that are almost the consistency of a cream cracker. They sometimes come in long thin slabs and you need to break off the little rectangles to serve. Colloquially named "dead fly biscuits," but don't let that put you off...
Love a sweet we missed or want to tell us about your favorite? Chime in below!