Posted by patron and guest blogger Alana T.
Like many Americans, my heart has been captured by the BBC/PBS series, The Great British Baking Show. I love the cooking, the cheerful contestants and the supportive, friendly competition. After watching a few seasons, I still had questions about many of the "bakes;" for example, what is a hot water crust? Food traditions and terms are different on the other side of the pond, and it is taken for granted that everyone knows what a traybake or a sponge is (i.e. bar cookies and cakes). I figured that, based on the success of the show, there must be an accompanying cookbook, and therein I would find my answers. Well, the Brits are different, so no book till last year. The two expert bakers of the show, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (yes, their real names!) have also each produced a cookbook. I found another recent book on British cooking that covers traditional recipes, and have included it in this review.
The Great British Bakeoff: Big Book of Baking was written for a British audience, so there are terms and types of foods that will be unfamiliar to the reader. The book contains recipes from show contestants and a few from the each of the hosts. Unlike many American baking books, there are a lot of savory baked goods. One note of caution: the book uses the metric system, so you have to do a little math to get ingredients ready. I tried the Farthing Biscuits (butter crackers), Cheese, Ham & Chive Tart and the Irish Brack (a quick bread flavored with black tea and dried fruits). Everything was pretty darn good. This cookbook is recommended to fans of the show and general baking enthusiasts.
If you are familiar with the TV show, you know about the segment in each episode where contestants are given a list of ingredients and brief instructions. It is up to each baker to successfully interpret and finish the recipes. Baking with Mary Berry follows the format of the show; the author assumes you have a certain level of skill and knowledge. There are photos of most finished items, a few for general methods, but little discussion of history or context. I was driving blind when I tried Welsh Cakes (thin, sweet biscuits cooked on a stovetop) and a Bakewell Tart (kind of like a shoofly pie). Both turned out well, however I don' t recommend this cookbook. Overall, the selection of recipes wasn't very interesting and I didn't learn anything about British baking from this book.
Paul Hollywoods' book (British Baking) is a step above the previous two. The author grew up working at his Dad's bakery and has decades of experience. He pours his knowledge and love of cooking into his book, and it shows. Recipes are organized by region, each of which gets its own introductory culinary history lesson. Individual recipes have thorough descriptions, and for those requiring unique or unusual methodology, an extended series of how-to photographs. The diversity of baked goods is impressive, from large loaves of bread to tiny fairy cakes. There are plenty of sweet things throughout, but also a healthy dose of savories, including meat pies. Well, maybe not healthy... most call for sausage, ham, bacon, cheese and lard, or a dangerous combination thereof.
Fidget Pie (ham, apple and onion) was a perfect fall dinner. The Sussux Churdles (petite liver and bacon tarts) were superb. The stunner was the Pond Pudding. First an explanation: Americans aren't familiar with British pudding. You're probably thinking of a milk-based, custardy thing. Over there, a pudding is barely sweet, usually steamed, and almost always served with a fruit sauce. The texture is somewhat like a soft, moist quick-bread /pie crust combo. I tried a few recipes and none were keepers... except Pond Pudding. Who would think to make a pastry-like crust, line a bowl with it, plop in a whole lemon, a stick of butter and some brown sugar, then steam the whole ensemble? An amazing British cook, that's who! To serve, you unmold the pudding, then cut into it, revealing the softened lemon as the rich sauce pours out. Visually stunning and really, really delicious. I recommend this book to bakers who want to increase their repertoire and those interested in British cooking.
I've saved the best for last. The Ploughman's Lunch and the Miser's Feast by Brian Yarvin was written by an American who loves British B&B's, High Tea and all forms of the cuisine. This is a full cookbook and includes essays on food-related topics. The author begins with Full Breakfast and moves through every category of food and culinary influence. All the recipes I tried were straightforward and tasty: Scotch Woodcock (sausage wrapped, deep fried boiled eggs), Galantine of Chicken (an elegant poultry meatloaf), Salmon Broth (actually a stew) and Staffordshire Oatcakes (oat crepes with cheese). Here at last was the explanation of and recipe for a hot water crust. I tried it and fell in love. Everyone should know how to make this crust. It is more forgiving and easier to work than our standard cold pastry. Sturdier than the cold versions, it is a perfect crust for the meat pies that the British favor. This is also the best crust for hand pies, like pasties (recipes included).
If you are interested in British cooking, this is the book for you. There are newer books covering the restaurant scene in London and various well-known chefs, but I recommend The Ploughman's Lunch instead. This is everyday cooking with simple ingredients and straight-forward methods. There are enough interesting new recipes in the baking sections to keep a baker happy, and all the iconic foods in the other books are included here. After trying a selection of these recipes, you won't think British food is tasteless or uncreative.