Spotted Dick & Other Curiosities of the English Larder
I love English food. I'm not kidding. The food scene in today's England is nothing like what you've heard about how bad English food is, mushy peas and all. London has some of the best ethnic cuisine outside of the foods' native countries, and a growing number of chefs cook modern takes on English and European food. Many of you are familiar with Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Nigella Lawson, who are the food celebrities of England. England is also home to the legendary restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Bray, just outside of London. This restaurant is run by Heston Blumenthal, who is considered to be one of the most cutting edge creators of that most modern of cuisines, molecular gastronomy ("nitro poached green tea and lime mousse," anyone?). But is it true that traditional English food, dating from Victorian times, might be as bad as it is said to be? Or maybe it just sounds bad. English food has some colorful names, many of which make me wonder: if the food sounded more appetizing, maybe it wouldn't get such a bad rap?
Inspired by a recent trip to London, I had been planning to write about all the fun and somewhat odd names of traditional food in England. Lo and behold, Francis Lam was somehow on a similar wavelength, though in a somewhat raunchier vein. His excellent slide show on Salon presents a more international selection, and he's covered some of the more suggestively named foods already. But I still think it's worth exploring further the foods of our former rulers across the pond. After all, that most American of foods, the sandwich, was named after a British Earl, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Legend says that he favored the handheld meal because he could eat it while playing cribbage, and not get his cards dirty.
You may think Americans and the English speak the same language, but I am not so sure. Here's a glossary of my top 10 oddly named English foods, whose names may leave you wondering: animal, vegetable, or mineral?
1) spotted dick- Francis Lam's and everyone else's favorite adolescent gag kind of name, this refers to a pudding (dessert to the rest of us) made of flour, currants, and suet. (Yes, suet, which is beef or mutton fat, though there are vegetarian versions now available made of palm oil and rice flour.) It's usually served with English custard sauce, known outside of England as creme anglaise. The "spotted" part refers to the polka dotted appearance lent by the currants studding the cake, and "dick" has several different explanations: it may be a contraction/corruption of the word pudding (from the last syllable) or possibly a corruption of the word dough or dog, as "spotted dog" is another name for the same dish. Another explanation is that it comes from the German word for "thick," in reference to the thickened suet mixture.
2) black pudding- were you thinking dessert? No, this intriguing name refers to the English version of blood sausage, and is eaten at breakfast. Here it is in a sandwich.
3) bubble and squeak- a cute name for sure, this is a dinner dish made of potatoes and cabbage and sometimes other vegetables, usually left over from a Sunday roast. The name refers to sound that the cabbage in this mashup makes when it's fried in oil.
4) bangers and mash- "bangers" are sausages, and mash, simply mashed potatoes. The name "banger" reportedly derives from the sound of cooking sausages with excess water, which causes the casings to explode with a "bang." Other interpretations are possible.
5) fool- I'm no... This is the perfect simple summer dessert. Take berries or other sweet fruit, puree it, and fold into whipped cream for a divine dessert. The possibilities are endless. I like to make this with mangoes. Nobody seems to know why this is called fool.
6) clotted cream- Clots? I can't help but think of blood. But this divine form of dairy tastes so much better than it sounds. This is the thick cream which is served with scones for afternoon tea. It has the consistency of butter but the richness and well, creaminess, of heavy cream. It's named for the way that the high butterfat cream of Guernsey cows, when heated, rises up above the milk and solidifies, or clots.
7) treacle- like molasses, this is an unrefined byproduct made in the process of refining cane sugar. It's a popular sweetener for baked goods and sweets that you'll only find in England and her former colonies. You can buy a light version of it as Lyle's Golden Syrup, the mention of which makes the English abroad homesick. I am intrigued by the darker version, black treacle, which has a smoky sweetness and is used for making toffee. Treacle gets mentioned in a lot of English literature, including Alice in Wonderland and more recently, Harry Potter. Harry's favorite food in the world is the treacle tart, made of golden syrup.
8) Eton mess- named for the college in which this is traditionally served, this is simply berries and cream, a little dressed up. It's a summer pudding of berries, crumbled meringue and whipped cream.
9) toad-in-the-hole- sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding (popover) batter, usually served with vegetables and onion gravy. The origin of the name "Toad-in-the-Hole" is vague. The dish supposedly resembles a toad sticking its little head out of a hole.
10) squashed fly cake or fly's graveyard cake- also known as the Eccles cake, for the town in which it was created. This is actually one of my favorite pastries, layers of buttery puff pastry loaded with currants, but not with fly in the name. I'm partial to this, too, because a version of it is a popular pastry in my husband's home, Trinidad, where it known more literally and more appetizingly as a currant roll.
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And of course I won't leave you without a recipe for Spotted Dick. This one comes from Epicurious 12/08, by Chef Lou Jones, The Culinary Institute of America. (Note: no suet required for this version!)
Yield: Makes 8 servings.
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups self-rising flour
2 cups plus 11 tablespoons whole milk
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup custard powder, such as Bird's brand*
Special equipment: large ceramic heatproof bowl or 8 (8-ounce) ramekins, parchment paper
1. Butter bowl or ramekins, then dust with flour, knocking out excess. On parchment paper, trace circle slightly larger than diameter of bowl (or 8 circles slightly larger than ramekins). Cut out.
2. Fill large, shallow, wide saucepan with 1 inch water. Add flat steamer or equally sized cookie cutters to create steaming platform just above water level.
3. In bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat together butter and 1 1/4 cups sugar until pale and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl periodically. Beat in vanilla.
4. Sift flour into medium bowl. Gradually beat flour into egg mixture just until combined. Add 3 tablespoons milk and beat until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add raisins and beat just until combined.
5. Transfer batter to prepared bowl or ramekins, smoothing top. Top bowl or ramekins with parchment paper circle(s), gently pressing on paper to make contact with batter.
6. Over moderately high heat, bring water in steamer to simmer. Transfer bowl or ramekins to steamer, cover pan tightly, lower heat to moderate, and steam, adding more boiling water to pan if necessary, until pudding is set, about 2 hours for bowl or 1 hour for ramekins.
7. Meanwhile, make custard sauce: In large bowl, whisk together custard powder, remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and 2 tablespoons milk to form paste. In medium saucepan over moderate heat, bring remaining 2 cups plus 6 tablespoons milk to simmer. Whisking constantly, gradually add hot milk to custard paste. Return mixture to saucepan and cook, whisking constantly, until sauce thickens, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.
8. Transfer pudding bowl or ramekins to rack and cool 5 minutes. Run paring knife around inside rim of bowl or ramekins and invert pudding(s) onto plate(s). Serve warm with custard sauce.
1) Linda Shiue
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All others: Wikipedia
© 2010 Linda Shiue