Old English desserts
home made strawberry fool
The great English suet puddings with fabulous names like Spotted Dick, Plum Duff, Roly-Poly, Cabinet Pudding and Sussex Pond Pudding are an endangered species. They might still be served in some retro restaurants but they are rarely made in English homes any more. Heavy puddings made with beef fat and which have to be boiled for 3 hours are simply not compatible with the modern English lifestyle.
So what Old English desserts are still popular in 21st century England?
Well, let's take a look at the definitive English cookery book of the 18th century, Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, and see what's still around more than 250 years later. Surprisingly, there's quite a lot.
The most obvious example is fruit pies. You can find a vast range of fruit pies in every English supermarket whether small individual pies (like top brand Mr Kipling's) or larger closed pies or open fruit tarts. English home cooks still commonly make fruit pies. Members the Women's Institute are almost as famous for their fruit pies as they are for making jam and cakes and their produce is sold to an eager public at their Country Markets all over England. Hannah Glasse devotes a whole chapter to pies although quite a few of the recipes are for savoury pies. She calls her sweet pies tarts although they are not open like modern tarts and either have a top and bottom layer of pastry if made in a small patty tin or just a top crust if made in a broad dish. Her fillings include lemons, oranges, dried fruits, apples. plums, cherries or "any other sort of fruit".
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Fool as "a cold dessert made with puréed fruit mixed or served with cream or custard" and dates the origin of the word back to the 16th century. Hannah Glasse certainly has some recipes for fruit fools including the famous English gooseberry fool. Her Gooseberry Fool contains stewed gooseberries sweetened with sugar and passed through a sieve to make a purée which is then added either to thick cream or to a custard of heated egg yolks and milk. Gardeners and allotment holders all over England will be making a similar recipe this summer when they get a glut of gooseberries or strawberries or any other soft fruit. We tend to make ours out of puréed strawberries folded in to whipped cream. But even if you don't make your own fool it can be bought in the supermarkets. What's more I would suggest that the fruit yoghurts which fill acres of shelves at British supermarkets are a direct descendent of fruit fools. The only real difference is that the milky medium has changed from higher fat and richer cream to lower fat and tangy yoghurt to suit modern tastes.
Hannah Glasse devotes another chapter to Cheesecakes, Creams, Jellies, Whip Syllabubs, etc. Which of those can we tick off our modern shopping list? Jellies never go out of fashion although we would probably make them with a shop bought jelly mix rather than boiling up four calves feet ourselves! Hannah Glasse sweetens her jellies with sugar and flavours them with currants (presumably redcurrants or blackcurrants), raspberries or more exotic things like orange flower water or even wine. Her custards are instantly recognisable although her flummeries and syllabubs are not widely made today outside of the kitchens of adventurous cooks or restaurants. But her fine Cream is very much like the base for the ever popular crème brulé although we would add vanilla flavouring rather than rose water. Cheesecakes sound instantly familiar. Unfortunately, Hannah Glasse's cheesecakes are quite different to the sort of cheesecake we would make or buy today. Our cheesecakes would have a biscuit base and hers have a puff pastry base and sound much more like the pastizzi I have enjoyed in Malta. While modern English cheesecakes would have a topping of fruit compote Hannah Glasse's have any added ingredients within the curd cheese itself.
We may have pensioned off our suet puddings but we can take heart that our fruit pies, fruit fools, jellies and custard are still as popular in England today as they were 250 years ago.
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