The cream tea wars

Cornwall and Devon are separated by the River Tamar and by a whole lot of bitter claims over who makes the best cream tea. Since a few people have left comments lately saying—and I’m about to paraphrase them both inaccurately and irresponsibly—that almost no wars are worth fighting, I think it’s time we stop and contemplate whether this one might not be. Because some things really do matter.

But first, for the sake of those of you whose feet have never been tucked under a table blessed with a cream tea, I need to explain what I’m going on about. The cream tea one of the few things that might convince this atheist that heaven exists. You take a scone and split it in half, then put jam and clotted cream on each half and as you take that first bite you’ll notice your eyes rolling upward toward the heavens in thanks.

swanage 073

Irrelevant photo: To be fair to both Cornwall and Devon, I’m posting a photo from Dorset. Which probably also thinks it invented the cream tea.

What’s clotted cream, though? It’s roughly as thick as whipped cream (don’t quibble; I did say “roughly”) but unsweetened. As well as yellower, gooier, and better. Ignore the disgusting name.

What’s this got to do with wars? Well, in Devon they think they invented both clotted cream and the cream tea. And they put the cream on first. In Cornwall, they also think they invented clotted cream and the cream tea and they put the jam on first. You at the back, settle down. This will be on the test.

In fact, it’s on the test every time I get a cream tea—which isn’t often because the arteries will only put up with just so much abuse. But it does happen now and then and when it does I sit in front of the scones, the dishes of cream and jam, and can’t remember which goes on first. Because I live in Cornwall, and this is serious stuff. It’s also exactly the kind of stuff my mind spits out like a toddler offered rutabaga. Ptooey, it says. I’m not remembering this, and it dances off to review some song lyric it already knows perfectly well, or the name of a wildflower, or something else of its own damn choosing.

Meanwhile, I could get myself run out of the county for this. And if I do, my mind’s going with me so I wish it would pay more attention.

Why does anyone care? Once upon a time, I’d have said it was just something to fight over, but food scientists have researched the issue, looking for the perfect cream tea formula. It turns out you want 40 grams of scone, 30 of cream, and 30 of jam. And—although they don’t mention this—a good-size pot of tea. With milk, a sunny day, and some people you like. Because hurling yourself at a cream tea on your own is right up there with drinking alone.

It turns out that the Devon method makes it easier to spread the fillings but the Cornish method allows you to serve the scone hotter, because the jam insulates the cream and keeps it from running. They don’t actually say which is better, the cowards. Which means they’ve been overtaken by the fate of most peacemakers, which is to piss off both sides.

You will, of course, pledge your allegiance to whichever side you choose, but don’t be surprised to make a few enemies when you do.

If you don’t live in Britain but want to make your own cream tea so you can participate in our wars? You’ll find a scone recipe in a back post and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding strawberry jam in a store, but you’ll have to either find a fancy supermarket and pay an outrageous amount of money for real clotted cream or try to fake it. Here are a couple of attempts I found online. I can’t vouch for either of them. This one’s from Food.com and used heavy cream and sour cream. And this one’s from Just a Pinch and uses cream cheese and whipping cream. Both add a bit of sugar, which makes me skeptical, but it may work. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit. On a sunny day. With friends.

One Great British Cake: Lemon Drizzle

British cooking has a lousy reputation, which is only partially deserved. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Yes, I do love it here, but honest, folks, baked beans on toast? Mushy peas?

To make up for that, though, British baking is amazing, and somewhere in the blog fog that surrounds my life lately, I promised to post a recipe for lemon drizzle cake—something I’d never tasted, or even imagined, before I moved here. That sounded simple when I wrote it. I’d translate grams to ounces, milliwhatsits to—oh, god, what did I measure in back in the U.S.? The U.S. measures in a system officially called imperial measurements, but nobody knows what you’re talking about when you call it that and I’m not a fan of empires anyway, so I find myself fishing for a set of words people will understand. You know, something clear, like cups and whatsits.

I’m not inspiring confidence, am I? It’s okay, though. I can count past twelve, and even if I’m not reliable once I get into the high teens, I have an oven and I’m not afraid to use it.

Egg. Drawing by Janneen Love

Egg. Drawing by Janneen Love

But before I give you the recipe—actually, two recipes, one metric and one in cups and whatsits—let me shake your confidence a bit more. (If you want to just get to the recipe, scroll down and I will meekly shut up—something I seldom do in person.) A friend gave me a simple lemon drizzle cake recipe and I thought I’d use it, but it calls for self-rising flour. A bit of online research told me that self-raising flour in the U.S. not only has an extra letter but also has salt—an unspecified amount—which it doesn’t in the U.K. Short of investing in a ticket to the U.S. to try out the recipe or asking a friend to mail me a bag, which would inevitably split open in the mail, causing an anthrax scare, I couldn’t predict how that difference would affect the cake. So I looked up substitutions and learned that every cook on the internet has a slightly different idea of how much baking powder you have to add to plain flour to come up with the equivalent of self-rising flour.

I went with a cook whose website sounded convincing, made the cake following her formula, and ended up with too much baking powder. And, oddly enough, a fairly flat cake, as if it needed more baking powder. But it already had too much, something you can tell because your tongue feels like it’s growing fur. So not only couldn’t I add more, I had to take some away.

Screw it. I tried a different recipe. This one is based on Dan Lepard’s version , which isn’t a traditional lemon drizzle but does use plain flour and is damn good. He’s a genius of a baker. Where we’ve diverged is the butter (he uses unsalted and I can’t be bothered) and the sugar.

A word about sugar: The first time I went to buy sugar in Cornwall, I was almost paralyzed by the decisions involved. I’m used to seeing white, brown (I’m not fussy about whether it’s light or dark, which tells you a lot about my approach to cooking), and confectioner’s sugar, but here I was looking at granulated, caster, Demerara (which Word just capitalized for me, thanks, and I’m sure it’s correct but I don’t know why), brown, muscovado, and icing.

Since recipes in the U.K. specify one kind or another and some use a bit of each, and I have, once or twice, messed around with caster and Demerara, but the results haven’t transported me bodily to heaven, so I said screw it and stuck with the three basic kinds I know: granulated, which is what I call plain ol’ sugar; brown; and icing sugar, which is what I learned to call confectioner’s sugar.

There’s only just so much shelf space in the world, never mind in my kitchen.

So I haven’t used the caster sugar Lepard recommends, and I haven’t topped the cake with his lemony sugary topping because I can’t see that it needs it. I like my sweets a bit sour. But I’ll include it for anyone who wants it.

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Metric                                                                                    Ounces Etc.

50 g. butter                                                                             2 oz. (4 Tbsp.) butter

50 ml. sunflower oil                                                                3 Tbsp. sunflower oil

Finely grated rind of 2 lemons                                              Finely grated rind of 2 lemons

150 g. sugar                                                                             ¾ cup sugar

2 eggs                                                                                        2 eggs

50 g. ground almonds                                                             ½ c. ground almonds

150 g. flour                                                                               1 ½ c. flour

2 Tbsp. corn flour                                                                    2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 ½ tsp. baking powder                                                         2 ½ tsp. baking powder

90 ml. lemon juice                                                                    3 fl. oz. ( 3/8 c.) lemon juice

[opt.: 75 g. icing sugar]                                                            [opt.: ½ c. confectioner’s sugar]

 

Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade / 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the butter and pour it into a mixing bowl. Add the oil, lemon zest, sugar, and eggs. Whisk them until they’re smooth a little bubbly. Stir in the ground almonds. Sift the flour, cornstarch (or corn flour—whatever you want to call it), and baking powder into a different bowl. Sift about half of this into the first bowl. If you’re working metrically, add 75 ml. of the lemon juice and set the rest aside. If you’re working in cups and ounces, measure out 1 Tbsp. of the lemon juice and set it aside, then pour the rest into the batter. Stir until they’re well mixed, then sift in the remaining dry ingredients and mix well.

Oil a small loaf or square pan. Cut a strip of baking paper wide enough to cover the bottom and long enough to lap a bit over the sides. This will make it easy to lift out the cake. Fit it into the pan, then take it out and fit it back in upside down, so the side that picked up the oil faces up. Is that clever or what? Smear the oil around if it’s not completely covered. Convince the batter into the pan and spread it evenly. Bake a loaf for 45 – 50 minutes or a square pan for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

If you’re not adding the sugar, brush the remaining lemon juice over the top. (You could probably skip this step and never notice the difference, because the batter’s already very lemony. Traditionally, you pour quite a lot of lemon juice over the cake, mixed with sugar, but then traditionally you don’t add lemon juice to the batter. When I make the traditional version, I skip the sugar and just add lemon juice, because I like my sweets tart.) If you want a sugary topping, mix the remaining lemon juice with the sugar, let the cake cool in the tin for five minutes, and spread the lemony sugar on top.

*

And with that I have fulfilled my promise. Enjoy your cake.

At some point (she typed rashly), in the interests of subverting British cooking, I’ll print a brownie recipe and a chocolate chip cookie recipe.

How to Bake a Scone

I can’t keep writing about life in Cornwall without posting a scone recipe. And not just any scone recipe, an English scone recipe.

You should understand that there’s no single, definitive English scone. Not only do scones divide into plain, fruit, and cheese (or savory, which is spelled savoury), but any one of those three will vary. You can also find griddle scones and drop scones. They’re like the brownie that way. Or religion. Lots of variations; lots of recipes; lots of people damning each other to hell for doing it wrong. You’ll also find regional variations. I could be wrong about this, but I believe scones get larger as they go north. It may have to do with the weather, or the longer O in the northern accents.

Some recipes include eggs, which is any right-living person would tell you is heresy, so this one doesn’t. I have no idea where I found it, or how much I’ve tinkered with it over the years. Whoever developed it, I’d give you credit if I could. All I can give instead is my apologies, and my thanks, because it makes a damned good scone.

Scone with jam. Photo by Benson Kua, and it's from Canada, not the U.K.

Scone with jam. Photo by Benson Kua, and it’s from Canada, not the U.K.

Scones: Makes 5 or 6

1 ½ cups flour, unsifted (see below)
1 Tbsp. cold butter
1 Tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
½ tsp. salt
[raisins if you want them]
Enough milk to pull the ingredients into a ball

Sift the dry ingredients. (I was taught to sift flour before measuring, transfer it grain by grain into the measuring cup, then sift it again after measuring, but I can’t be bothered. Half the time I can’t be bothered sifting it at all, I just mix the dry ingredients together. If we’re talking about kitchen heresies, this is a big one, but my baking comes out fine, thanks. Just don’t whack your measuring cup down on the counter to make the flour settle, because it will and you’ll end up with too much.) Cut in the butter. (You want to keep the butter cold, which will keep the scone from being heavy, so if you can cut it with a pastry blender, do. If you use your fingers to crumble it into the dry ingredients, handle it as little as possible.) If you want raisins, this is the time to add them. Stir in just enough milk to form the dough into a ball. Roll out to about ¾” thick on a floured surface and cut with a biscuit cutter or, if you don’t have one, the rim of a glass. If you twist your cutter, the scones won’t rise evenly. If your scones don’t rise evenly, it won’t make the least bit of difference, so don’t lose sleep over this. Place the scones on a greased cookie sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes at 400 degrees. (To make sure they’re done, take the cookie sheet out of the oven, pry one open partway, and peek inside. If it’s gooey, put the cookie sheet back in for a couple of minutes.) Eat with butter—lots of butter—or jam, or both. They’re fine cold, but they’re better hot.

This is the real thing.