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Sweet differences in desserts

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POSTED: July 11, 2013 1:30 p.m.

After recently visiting England, I am almost embarrassed to say that one of the things I enjoy most about going back is treating myself to some traditional British foods I grew up with.
My love of food, cooking and dining out could fill a book rather than a column, so I am going to focus on sweet treats.
Let’s start with the differences in the language of desserts:
• Cookies are called biscuits in the United Kingdom. The nearest thing the English have to what Americans think of as a biscuit is a scone, which is traditionally loaded with jam, or jelly, and whipped, or clotted cream, and eaten in the afternoon with tea and delicate cucumber sandwiches.
• If you are talking to a British person, remember that coffee cake tastes of coffee with coffee icing rather than any cake, which goes down well with coffee.
• Muffins are a type of flatbread roll for toasting usually eaten at breakfast rather than a delicious, sweet “bun” of blueberry, chocolate, banana nut or any number of imaginative flavorings available here (although, as globalization has increased, the British now can buy “American muffins”).
• American pancakes are closer to British crumpets or pikelets, which are usually toasted and buttered, whereas in the UK a pancake usually is larger and very thin, like a French crepe.
• British puddings are any type of dessert that’s eaten after a main meal rather than the specific custardy, creamy banana or chocolate dessert popular here.
• Angel and devil’s-food cakes are not traditional British recipes, but sponge cake is the basis for many similar cakes named in honor of Queen Victoria during the second half of the 19th century. For example, a Victoria sponge cake consists of two layers of plain sponge cake with whipped cream and jam between them. Another type of sponge cake is a Battenberg which is covered in marzipan and, when cut open, reveals a distinctive checked pattern that’s usually in pink and yellow.
• Cupcakes now are popular among the British, but the older generation often suspiciously regards them as a decadent American import and prefers a fairy cake, which is small like a cupcake but has a modest amount of icing flattened on the surface.
• Cobbler also is seen as an American import; the British tend to stick with old-fashioned pies.
• The American crisp derives from the British crumble that’s eaten with seasonal fruit and berries, often apple, blackberry and rhubarb.
• As in the U.S., regional English recipes have become popular nationwide. For example, there’s the Bakewell tart, originating from Bakewell in Derbyshire, which is a pastry that has a layer of jam and a sponge filling flavored with almonds
There are several major differences in the sweet tastes between the U.K. and the U.S.  Generally, and certainly when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, U.K. desserts relied much less on added sugar than in the U.S.  I often have wondered if this is because of the differences in sugar rationing during World War II.  While sugar was rationed in the U.S. from 1942-46, according to u-s-history.com, the allowances were much more generous than in the U.K., where sugar rationing lasted from 1940-54. A whole generation grew up substituting carrots for sugar in recipes and making mock cream from milk, margarine and corn flour, according to www.bbc.co.uk/history.
Maybe this is why the British usually do not sweeten a pastry with sugar and why our traditional sweet snacks often are buttery shortbread and not chocolate-chip cookies.
The American love affair with ice cream also was aided and abetted by the easy availability of home refrigeration many years earlier than in the U.K. Even today, the average British refrigerators and freezers are much smaller than their American counterparts. While the British were rebuilding a bombed out country in 1945 after the end of World War II, Americans were turning much of their manufacturing powerhouse that led the Allied victory, to producing home appliances.  
Instead of ice cream, British desserts usually are accompanied by hot custard sauce or natural dairy cream (the British often pour it; if we whip it, we never add sugar). Lack of refrigeration and long, cold U.K. winters meant that traditional desserts relied heavily on dried fruit and preserves. Rich fruit cakes can last for months once they are baked.
Maybe our recent histories are why the British can get excited about a simple, toasted, buttered teacake (bread roll with cinnamon and raisins) and a simple cup of tea (with milk, of course). Americans generally are much harder to impress, hence the extensive choice of “rich fudge and chocolate cookie crunch with vanilla and s’mores ice cream in a round, log or sheet cake” on the Dairy Queen menu.
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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