Classic English Desserts
The English love to round off lunch or dinner with something sweet. British food is experiencing an ongoing revival that has cooks bringing back favorites such as fool, trifle, spotted dick, and sticky toffee pudding, and making the most of seasonal fruits and traditional spices.
"Sweet," "afters," "pudding," "dessert": all these refer informally to dessert; "sweets" are simply candies, though. In England dessert is as likely to be a delicate creamy confection as a warming fruit pie or a rich, hearty pudding. Winter is the perfect time for steamed puddings, made with currants, dried fruits, and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, or for hot fruit crumbles with custard. The warmer months bring an avalanche of fresh berries, and with them light, creamy desserts such as syllabub and fool come into their own. For many, the classic desserts such as sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick capture memories of growing up in the 20th century, even though rationing during and after World War II kept sweet things off the menu. No longer: dessert bars are becoming a trend in cities including London.
Desserts may use wine and brandy, and other special items. These include currants —dried small black grapes—as well as dried fruits, candied fruit peel, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Quinces, hard, apple-like fruits, can be combined with apples in a crumble or turned into a paste to accompany cheese. Damsons are acidic plums, made into jams, jellies, or wine.
Hot Steamed Puddings
These puddings are cooked slowly over boiling water. Sticky toffee pudding is a dark sponge cake, made with finely chopped dates or prunes and covered in a thick toffee sauce. The oddly named spotted dick is traditionally made with suet and steamed in a hot cloth, "spotted" with currants and other dried fruits, and served with custard. Another classic, Christmas pudding, dates from medieval times. Also known as plum pudding, it contains brandy, currants, and dried fruit, and is strong-flavored. Before the pudding steams for many hours, each family member stirs the mixture and makes a wish.
Crumbles, similar to American crisps, were invented during wartime rationing when butter, flour, and sugar were too scarce to make pastry for pie. Tart Bramley apples native to England work well with cinnamon and cloves. Don't pass up rhubarb crumble, especially around February when the delicate bright pink forced variety of rhubarb from Yorkshire makes its brief appearance.
Trifle, Fool, and Syllabub
Dating from Tudor times, fool is simply a sharp fruit, usually gooseberry, swirled with whipped cream and a little sugar. Trifle evolved from fool, and begins with a layer of sponge (soaked in port, sherry, or Madeira wine) and Jell-O or jam, topped with custard and whipped cream. Light but flavorful, syllabub is made from wine or brandy infused overnight with lemon and sugar and whipped with cream.
Invented at the famous Eton College, after, it is said, a Labrador dog accidentally sat on a picnic basket, Eton Mess is still served at the annual prize-giving ceremony. This unfussy summer dessert consists of strawberries mixed with whipped cream and crushed meringue.
Fresh summer berries, bread, and a little sugar are all that should go into a summer pudding. Left for several hours so that the sweet and sharp flavors develop, the pudding turns out a deep red color, and is often served with a touch of cream.
Grasmere gingerbread from the Lake District is a dense spicy cake flavored with ginger and golden syrup. Eccles cakes, from Eccles in Lancashire, are round pastry cases, slashed three times for the Holy Trinity and filled with syrupy currants. Bakewell pudding or tart has a layer of jam and almond sponge, topped with flaked almonds or white icing.
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