The same question every time, asked with confusion or with a sneer:
But is there any traditional English pâtisserie? What is this pooding?
The heavy fruit thing? You must be thinking of Christmas pudding – which we only eat once a year, if that.
They think that pooding is the epitome of our backward cuisine.
For the British, pudding just means dessert. It’s true that the word itself resonates comfort, evokes steamed sponges with thick custard – rather than the insubstantial wisp of a French dessert. But we have all kinds, not just Christmas: a sticky toffee replete with syrup, lemon self-saucing, a summer one bursting with red fruits. And not just pooding, the British really can bake: chelsea buns, scones, biscuits, all kinds of rich layer cakes.
Usually I am too lazy to properly defend our heritage. We have a terrible reputation for food after all. Sometimes I have to admit that these things are personal, vestiges of a childhood that do not necessarily cross cultures. (See also, the northern French habit of dipping smelly cheese in coffee in the mornings.)
When I made last week’s cheesecake, I ran out to buy plain biscuits and found some digestives in Monoprix. They had been renamed sablées anglaises, and had little British guards on the red packet. I couldn’t help but think that the French must be very disappointed in our rendering of a sablée - normally a flaky buttery biscuit – with its plain dry crunch. Ideal for dipping in tea, digestives are sturdy and reliable, a ready vehicle for cheese and chutney, or chocolate spread. I had them for school break time, sandwiched with a generous layer of cold butter. But they win no prizes for prettiness, certainly cannot compete with the class of the macaron or the indulgence of a warm, melting chocolate chip cookie. To foreigners, they are probably as lacklustre as they believe our climate to be.
So I tried to make some of my own, to convert the new French flatmate immediately to my cause. (Start small and work up to the full-blown sticky pudding.) It was the perfect excuse to use my tiny alphabet stamps for cookies, to spell out ‘welcome.’
They turned out beautifully – borderline oatcakes, with a craggy rough texture more like Duchy Originals (la di da) than proper digestives. Like my Granny’s old-fashioned oaty biscuits that are made with lard, no less. Mine had a little golden caster sugar for sweetness, but were still delicious with goat’s cheese. Those that weren’t slathered in butter were dipped in milk chocolate with marbled stripes of dark chocolate, for a very comforting and nostalgic snack. Most importantly, they stand up extremely well to dunking in tea. How can you be rude about a country that bakes such gems – better still, whose prince and heir makes the biscuits?
In the end, I am happy if no-one believes the English really do know their way around an oven – all the more for me.
adapted from Peyton and Byrne’s British Baking – if you use oatmeal as they suggest the biscuits will have a fine texture like digestives, or grind rolled oats as I did for more bite, like hobnobs
150g rolled oats
150g wholemeal flour
50g golden caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp bicarbonate of soda
90g cold butter (I like salted)
1 egg, beaten
for decoration: 200g milk chocolate + 50g dark chocolate
Blend rolled oats in the food processor to a breadcrumb texture. Add flour, sugar, salt and bicarbonate of soda, then butter cut into cubes. Pulse until butter is lentil-sized bits. (This can be done by hand, but in that case you need to use a fine oatmeal instead of rolled oats.)
Add egg and blend to form a dough. Tip out onto a floured surface and bring into a ball. If a little dry, add a tablespoon of water. Roll out with a little flour to 3mm thick, cut out rounds (I made 20 x 6cm biscuits) and stamp a message if you have alphabet stamps.
Bake at 200C for 12-15 minutes, until crisp and brown. Let cool, then dip one side in melted ilk chocolate. If you want to be extra fancy, pipe (or drizzle with the tines of a fork) the dark chocolate in horizontal lines before the milk chocolate has set, then draw the point of a knife back and forth in vertical lines to make a beautiful marble pattern.