Imagine this: It’s a Sunday night, the end of a long weekend full of gift shopping, cookie baking, and fun-but-exhausting holiday merrymaking. You can’t possibly cook now, you decide, and turn to your trusty takeout-menu drawer. What are you in the mood for, though? Thai? Italian? Indian? Ethiopian?
If there’s one thing I bet you didn’t say, it’s “British.” Despite the U.K.’s recent restaurant renaissance, its meals have been a culinary punchline for nearly a century, ever since World War I hobbled the country’s food culture. George Orwell summed up its characteristics rather bluntly: “simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous.”
Orwell was obviously never one to hide his feelings about food; his travel writings slam chefs everywhere from France to Burma. You’d think he’d be a little kinder to his home cuisine, but he savages everything from fish and chips (“definitely nasty, and has been an enemy of home cookery”) to rice puddings (“the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence”) to pretty much any kind of vegetable (“usually smothered in a tasteless white sauce”).
But Orwell did reserve some praise for what was, in his mind, Britain’s crowning culinary glory: “sweet dishes and confectionery—cakes, puddings, jams, biscuits.” Best of all were the Christmas treats: plum pudding, and treacle tart, “a delicious dish … hardly to be found in other countries.”
So how could a food lover like Orwell explain the U.K.’s mediocre showing in the kitchen? As he tells it, it’s because the best English cooking isn’t at a charming bistro or fancy restaurant, but is made at home, where foreigners don’t have access. That may be bad news for tourists—but it’s a moment for home cooks to shine. When we’re baking scones or Yorkshire puddings, Orwell says, we can be chefs of our own making.
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I think treacle suffers from a classic British food problem: lack of name appeal. It just doesn’t sound like something you want to eat. It reminds me of another Christmas classic from across the pond, “bread sauce.” That could be the most delicious thing in the world, but you’re never going to convert me with a name like “bread sauce.”
The naming situation is especially problematic for those of us in the U.S., whose only experiences with treacle come from books. It’s always magically popping up on those tables at Hogwarts. But my first (and lasting) impression of treacle came from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when the Dormouse begins telling a story at the Mad Hatter’s tea party:
‘Once upon a time there were three little sisters … their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–
`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’
Treacle was apparently found in a well, and made people sick. My eight-year-old brain could only conclude it must be some sort of insidious mold, and that’s what I believed for … an embarrassingly long time.
If you have the same treacle trepidation, looking at Orwell’s recipe might not convince you to try it out. Besides bread crumbs (apparently a Brit crowd-pleaser), there’s not much else going on, aside from a whisper of lemon and ginger. But once you cut yourself a sticky slice, you’ll see why it’s a favorite for the holiday table. Just call it a “lemon ginger tart,” and watch your guests dig in. It’ll be our little secret.
1 1/2 cups flour
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups Golden syrup
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Zest of 1 lemon
1. In a large bowl, rub flour and butter together with your fingertips until it resembles coarse meal. In a small bowl, beat together egg yolk, salt, and 2 tablespoons cold water. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and stir until dough forms. Gather into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and chill 30 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan and line the inside with parchment paper. Roll out chilled dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to pan and chill 30 minutes. Cover pan with parchment and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 15 minutes, or until edges are cooked; remove the beans/weights and bake an additional 10 minutes, or until bottom is lightly golden.
3. In a medium bowl, stir together syrup, bread crumbs, ginger, egg, cream, and lemon zest. Pour into pastry shell and bake until filling is set, about 30 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes and serve with another of Orwell’s British favorites, clotted cream.