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Every British expat living in the U.S. has a constant yearning for some culinary pleasure they left back home. For many, it’s British bacon while others long for a traditional Sunday roast with all the trimmings. Some even declare they would swim across the Atlantic just to get their hands on a decent portion of fish and chips. For me and my sweet tooth, it’s the desserts.
Let us begin proceedings with what is undoubtedly the most famous English dessert of all. A trifle is made from several layers of yumminess, including custard, whipped cream, sponge cake, jelly and a selection of fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. (The more daring also like to spike their trifle with alcoholic beverages, such as sherry or fortified wine.) But perhaps the greatest gift this dessert has given British culture is the classic Tommy Cooper trifle gag. “A fella goes to the doctor, and he’s got jelly in one ear and custard in the other, and the doctor says, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Fella says, ‘You’ll have to speak up doctor, I’m a trifle deaf.’”
Get Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for trifle at BBC Good Food.
Eton College is a lot like Hogwarts, except instead of teaching witchcraft and wizardry, they teach poshness and pomposity. The Eton mess is a dessert traditionally served at Eton’s annual cricket match against the pupils of Harrow School and consists of strawberries, cream and pieces of meringue all mixed together in one big—you guessed it—mess.
Get the recipe for strawberry rose Eton mess at BBC Good Food.
In 1939, a Czechoslovakian lawyer named Dr. Ernest Velden fled his homeland for fear of Nazi persecution and found refuge in Britain. The following year, Dr. Velden put his law degree to good use and set up an ice cream factory in Eastbourne, East Sussex. In 1958, old Ernie came up with the idea for arctic roll: a log of vanilla ice cream encased in a tube of sponge cake with a paper-thin layer of raspberry sauce in between. Sales soared throughout the 1970s, and, by 1983, arctic roll was such a celebrated part of British culture that the Queen rewarded the good doctor with an OBE. But like ice cream left out in the sun, the arctic roll’s days were numbered. Sales slumped during the 1990s and, in 1997, manufacturer Birds Eye announced it was ceasing production. But the story doesn’t end there. In 2008, the arctic roll would rise again like a phoenix from the freezer. The global recession prompted Birds Eye to bring back the dessert as part of their “Make Your Pound Go Further” campaign. And the British public welcomed it back with open arms (and mouths).
Get the recipe for clotted cream & raspberry ripple Arctic roll at BBC Good Food.
This sweet, stodgy pudding evokes much nostalgia amongst Brits of a certain age for it was once a staple of school lunches throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, even its delightfully rhythmical name carries an air of childlike innocence, as if it were something out of a Roald Dahl book. Kids often refer to jam roly-poly as “dead man’s arm” due to its appearance resembling a bloodied human limb. Kids, eh? The dessert itself is a suet pudding spread with jam, which is then rolled and steamed before being served with hot custard. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the pairing of hot custard with dessert is practically nonexistent in the U.S. Pieces of pie, for example, are either served with ice cream, cream, or unaccompanied. It’s a crime against American puddings that they haven’t been introduced to hot custard. A crime, I tell you!
Recipe via BBC Good Food.
The crackling of the bonfire, the whizzing and popping of the fireworks, the excited “oohing” and “ahhing” of the crowd, and the moist treacle taste of parkin. Welcome to Britain on Guy Fawkes Night. Parkin originated in Yorkshire during the Industrial Revolution and is made from flour, oatmeal, black treacle, margarine, brandy and ginger. It tastes like soft gingerbread, and Northern grandmothers bake it in batches big enough to feed an army and then they force-feed it to you for the next seven months. “Go on, have another piece, pet,” they say.
Recipe via BBC Good Food.
In tracing the biography of the banoffee pie we return once again to East Sussex and a restaurant in the small village of Jevington (just a stone’s throw from where Dr. Velden had some years earlier invented his arctic roll). The year was 1972, and the restaurant was The Hungry Monk. Head chef Ian Dowding collaborated with owner Nigel McKenzie on a dessert that was based on an American dish called “Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie.” At first they experimented with different fruits such as apples and oranges before finally hitting the sweet spot with bananas. It was McKenzie who came up with the portmanteau “banoffee” (although McKenzie originally christened it “banoffi” it later became more commonly spelt “banoffee”). Because you can’t patent a recipe, neither Dowding nor McKenzie have received any royalties for their creation, although their efforts are commemorated with an historical blue plaque on the wall of the now defunct Hungry Monk restaurant.
Get the recipe for mini banoffee pies at BBC Good Food.
Bread and butter pudding
Yet more stodgy pudding! Some food historians date this frugal dish as far back as the 11th century, while others place it much later at around the turn of the 17th century. What is certain, however, is that this dessert began life amongst the poor as a way to use up any leftover bread. It’s made by layering slices of stale, buttered bread in a baking tray and then adding a sprinkling of raisins. Next, a mixture of lightly whisked eggs and milk is poured over the bread. Then you pop it in the oven and Bob’s your uncle. It’s a versatile pudding that can be seasoned with whatever’s lying around the kitchen: nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, anything really. For best results serve with piping hot custard (if you can find any).
Get the recipe for a light version of this dish at BBC Good Food.
A popular treat on days at the seaside, the knickerbocker glory is an ice cream sundae made with fruit, cream and syrup. Nobody knows where it came from, who invented it or quite what makes it glorious; it is the mysterious enigma of the Great British dessert menu. All we know for certain really is that it appeared in Britain sometime during the 1930s. Etymologically speaking, the most likely explanation is that the name comes from America. In his 1809 book, A History of New York, author Washington Irving wrote under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. This assumed last name soon became a colloquial term for the Dutch population living in the area. Further evidence to suggest the knickerbocker’s U.S. roots can be found in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book How to Mix Drinks, in which Thomas gives a recipe for a rum-based fruity cocktail called “The Knickerbocker.” The good news for expats is that they’ll have no problems finding an ice cream sundae in the U.S.; it just won’t be called a knickerbocker.
Get the recipe for peach melba knickerbocker glory at BBC Good Food.
Sticky toffee pudding
Like the knickerbocker glory, the STP’s roots also lie on the left side of the pond. During the Second World War, two Canadian Air Force officers stationed in Britain were lodging at The Old Rectory Hotel in Claughton, Lancashire. One evening during dinner service, the men passed the original recipe for sticky toffee pudding on to their hotelier, Patricia Martin. The dish was later adopted and tweaked by Francis Coulson, who owned the Sharrow Bay Hotel in the Lake District. It was here during the 1970s that STP achieved national recognition and before long it was being sold in restaurants all over Britain.
Get a recipe for sticky toffee pudding at BBC Good Food.
Come on now, stop laughing, we’re all adults here. Granted, it sounds like an undesirable male genital disease, but the dish is made from suet mixed with other ingredients such as flour, molasses, corn syrup and nutmeg, which together create a pastry dough. Raisins are then added to make the dish “spotted” before being steamed or boiled. Where the word “dick” originates from in this context is unclear, but it is most likely a corruption, possibly of “dough” or the last syllable of “pudding.” As with most hot British desserts, spotted dick is best complemented with hot custard.
Get the recipe for spotted dick at BBC Good Food.
What are some of your favorite British desserts? Tell us in the comments below:
View all posts by Jon Langford.