A Taste of Old England for the New England Home
I’ve made many trips to England to visit my husband’s family on the Wirral Peninsula, which is separated from Liverpool by the Mersey River. If you’re old enough to remember Gerry and the Pacemakers’ song “Ferry Cross the Mersey” you’re thinking of precisely the right spot. As it turns out, when you’re on this very same ferry headed toward Liverpool today you’ll hear that song played relentlessly (just in case you somehow forgot what you were doing).
Back in the mid ‘60s, that song was written as a love letter of sorts to Liverpool, which made sense given it was the birthplace of the Beatles (and Gerry no doubt wanted to get in on the action). For me, though, the object of that song’s affection should have been reversed. The Wirral is the place I love (and ironically Gerry must have loved it too, because he moved back to the Wirral and still lives there today).
In this thoroughly charming peninsula of rolling emerald green pastures dotted with cows, horses, sheep and neatly trimmed hedgerows to keep them playing nicely, I first discovered my love affair with British cooking.
Thinking back, it wasn’t that long ago when the food of England conjured up images of gut-busting, greasy fish and chips served in newspaper, stodgy sandwiches under the somewhat misleading aliases of a bap or a butty, and desserts with gag-worthy adolescent monikers like spotted dick and other curiosities.
In the land that gave us the immortal words of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, who could have ever imagined the development of such quirky names for things culinary? I suppose if you invent the language, you can do whatever you want with it.
Indeed, sometimes it feels as if we use entirely different terminology than our friends across the pond. For example, when was the last time you had crispy pucks of bubble and squeak? Or neeps and tatties? Or an egg salad stottie? Thank heavens my trusted interpreter (aka, my husband Kevin) has outgrown his schoolyard prank phase and is good about letting me know what’s what.
Kevin believes the food service in England has historically been appalling because it hasn’t traditionally been a service-oriented country like America. It’s more of a “stay calm and carry on” nation versus a “do you want fries with that?” upsell kind of country. If you’ve ever watched the Brit hit show Fawlty Towers with John Cleese you’ll have a very good understanding of what I’m talking about.
On one of my first trips to Northern England years ago, we walked into a restaurant for lunch, only to have the waitstaff seem shocked, as if we had walked into their living room. Granted, there was hardly anyone in the place. After ten minutes of sitting at a table with zero attention, we went to find a waiter to request menus. The response was as frustrating as it was amusing (at least in hindsight).
“A menu? You want a menu?” as if the request was of an outlandish and thoroughly improper nature. Ten more minutes passed before we were presented with one. One, mind you. Not two. A sane person might have left at this point, but we didn’t. Instead we foolishly asked about the daily special. I kid you not. The waiter’s response was a deadpan, “Oh, I really couldn’t say, we’ve only had that special on for the last month.”
Thankfully, a lot has changed since the Fawlty Towers days of yore. There’s been a revolution in the British food scene over the last ten years or so (although I’m afraid lager louts binging on late night curries aren’t going to disappear anytime soon). There’s a renewed interest in both cooking and service, which is a phenomenon I’ve watched spread like wildfire across the United Kingdom both in person and on my beloved British cookery programs.
On the one hand, modern British cooking has embraced the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy, as witnessed by the meteoric rise of self-trained chef Heston Blumenthal (of The Fat Duck fame), largely considered to be one of the best chefs in the world. His name is frequently thrown into the ring with René Redzepi, Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller. If you ignore Heston’s fancy pants molecular gastronomy, you can find the heart and soul of British cooking in authentic gastropubs, which are showcases for comfort food elevated to vibrant and delicious new heights (minus the foam).
At their best, real gastropubs have an intense commitment to locally sourced meat, fowl, seafood, dairy and seasonal produce. The provenance of the food is of paramount importance, as these local establishments are passionate about supporting their neighboring artisan producers and farmers. This dedication is often reflected in the very names of the dishes on the menus, so you know, for example, exactly what type of potato is in your mash and where it was grown. There is both a rhythm and a romance underlying this farm-to-fork style of cooking, so rooted in time, place and season.
Here I’ve created a taste of Old England for your New England home. At a time of year when there’s more dark than light, this menu will create fond memories to warm both the heart and the soul, whether you’re sitting around the dining room table or in front of a blazing hearth with the snow falling.
The starter for this winter menu is a warm and comforting root vegetable soup, although any homely vegetable will do quite nicely. The main dish includes a sweet potato, leek and Vermont Cheddar cottage pie, along with its ever-present sidekick, crunchy pickled red cabbage.
Just for the record, if you top ground meat of any sort with mashed potatoes in the United States it’s called a shepherd’s pie, but don’t try this nonsense in England. A proper shepherd’s pie is strictly made with ground lamb (hence, the shepherd portion of the name; they don’t tend cattle, you know). Any other kind of minced meat is simply called a cottage pie.
In England any form of dessert, regardless of its form or texture, is called pudding. My pud is an adaptation of England’s all-time favorite dessert, sticky toffee pudding with crème anglaise (the pud in question is actually a steamed cake, albeit served with a side of custard, so perhaps I’m just confusing the issue).
Every single time Kevin makes sticky toffee pudding, our guests can’t help but melt into an Oliver Twist-ian caricature and squeak out a weak-kneed, “Please, sir, I want some more.” For years, guests have begged Kevin for this recipe to no avail whatsoever, as he is not wont to share his secrets. Today a lot of people will be jumping for joy because Kevin is finally giving up the goods for Edible Cape Cod.
No matter where we go (whether it’s overseas or in a bathroom stall at a local restaurant), I’m continually asked for insider information on wine as well as advice on wine pairing recommendations. Yet, in spite of my penchant for all things vinous, I’m going to pair this winter menu with traditional hard cider, which is a classic British beverage. While there are many excellent English hard ciders on the market, I’ve chosen an excellent local producer from New Hampshire to pair with the meal.
Poverty Lane Orchards’ Farnum Hill makes true artisan ciders in small batches. For this winter menu I’ve chosen their Farmhouse (available in 750 ml bottles), as it most closely approximates the true British style. This lovely traditional hard cider is a pale gold color with lively bubbles and just a hint of sweetness to balance the tart apple undertones, but please don’t expect anything other than a crisp and bone dry cider.
What’s better than a steaming hot bowl of soup on a cold winter’s night? When the ground is frozen and the wind is howling through the trees, this soup makes a nice starter, or even the centerpiece of a main meal. Substitute a giant Cape turnip or a local rutabaga for the celeriac if it’s on hand. If you’re feeling fancy, garnish the soup with a swirl of heavy cream.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 medium sized celeriac, peeled and cubed
- 4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
- 1 medium apple, such as Honeycrisp, peeled and diced
- 1 slice of ciabatta, crust removed, and diced into small cubes
- 2 strips of thick cut bacon, diced
- Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Celery leaves and parsley for garnish
Place the butter and olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts add the onion and cook for 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent. Add the celeriac and cook for five more minutes. Pour enough chicken stock over the celeriac and onion to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, or until the celeriac is soft. Add the apple and cook for five more minutes. Blend with an immersion or countertop blender until smooth. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Meanwhile, fry the ciabatta in olive oil until crispy and brown, and set aside. Fry the bacon until crisp and drain. Serve the soup in a warm bowl and garnish with celery and parsley leaves, crispy bacon lardons and fried ciabatta croutons.
These crunchy bright red ribbons are the perfect foil for cottage pie (or a burger, for that matter). They’re zingy, aromatic and acidic enough to balance the richness of the protein dish while also providing brilliant textural contrast. One taste and you’re hooked. This recipe absolutely oozes England to me.
- 1 medium red cabbage, cut in quarters lengthwise, then sliced into ¼-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 16 ounces red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 fresh whole bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick, bashed up
- 12 whole black peppercorns
Place the sliced red cabbage into a large bowl with the salt. Work the salt into the cabbage with your hands until moisture starts to release. Let rest for two hours. Rinse under running water to remove the salt. Drain and place the wilted cabbage into a large sterilized jar. Meanwhile, place the vinegar in a saucepan. Place all the spices in cheesecloth and tie with string. Add the cheesecloth pouch to the vinegar and bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the cheesecloth pouch and discard. Pour the hot vinegar over the cabbage. Seal the jar and store in the refrigerator for several days before use. Once opened, you’ll want to serve this pickle with just about everything.
My very first cottage pie was cooked by my mother- and father-in-law. On a classic damp, chilly and rain-swept day in England, this cottage pie is about as good as it gets. As soon as I had a forkful, I knew it would be making regular appearances in our Cape Cod kitchen. When it comes out of the oven hot, bubbling and oozing with sharp cheddar cheese under which crispy leek shards are peeking out on a bed of orange mash, you just know you’re in for a heavenly treat, even before you uncover that delicious savory mince.
Sweet Potato Mash
- 2 pounds sweet potato, peeled and cut into one-inch chunks
- 1 stick of unsalted butter, cubed
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Sweet Potato Mash: Boil the sweet potatoes in water until soft. Drain and run through a ricer or purée until smooth in a food processor. Add the butter and stir until melted. Drizzle in the cream, stir and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside until ready to assemble the cottage pie. Feel free to substitute white sweet potatoes or Yukon gold potatoes if orange just isn’t your thing (just don’t run white potatoes through the food processor or you’ll end up with a most unpleasant texture).
Cottage Mince and Toppings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 onion, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stems removed, and chopped
- 1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
- 1 pound organic or natural ground beef
- 10 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 250 ml red wine (a Côtes du Rhône is nice)
- 4-5 dashes of Worcestershire sauce or to taste
- 1 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
- 1 leek, cut in half lengthwise, then chopped on the diagonal in ¼-inch pieces
- 1 cup grated sharp Vermont cheddar cheese
For the Cottage Mince and Toppings: Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan. Add the carrots, onions and garlic and fry until golden and soft. Season with salt and pepper, toss in the thyme and Herbes de Provence, and cook for 5 minutes (you can also add fresh rosemary, if you like). Cook the ground beef in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a separate pan until browned. Drain the meat and return to the pan, adding the diced mushrooms. Sauté for 5 minutes and then add to the onion and carrot mixture. Add the tomato paste and red wine and cook until the liquid is reduced by half (if you like an unctuous background, add more red wine and reduce yet further).
Add the Worcestershire sauce (I’ve been known to wantonly bong in hefty amounts when nobody is looking) and simmer until thickened. Add the parsley and adjust the seasoning. Spoon the mixture into an ovenproof casserole dish.
Top with the sweet potato mash, sprinkle on the leeks, and cover with Vermont cheddar cheese. Drizzle with olive oil. Cook at 375° until the top is golden. Serve with crunchy pickled red cabbage and perhaps a well-crafted dill pickle or two.
One of the most memorable desserts I’ve ever had was the sticky toffee pudding at a gastropub called the Brackenrigg Inn in Ullswater, situated in the stunning Lake District in Northern England. Since that sweet epiphany, Kevin has been making sticky toffee pudding at home as a special treat, but he’s never shared his secret recipe with anyone until now. For the first time ever, Kevin reveals the ultimate secret to his pud (hint: it has to do with the syrup). This recipe may sound a bit fiddly, but the steps are simple and the results are sublime. This is a classic winter dessert that will make you long for the advent of cold and brisk weather on Cape Cod.
Steamed Cake (aka, the pudding)
- ½ cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup*
- 1½ cups whole dried dates, pitted and diced
- ¾ cup warm water
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1¼ cups all purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 pinch cinnamon
- 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 pinch ground ginger
- ½ stick unsalted butter, melted
Heat the oven to 350° (or 325 with convection). Butter and flour eight 4-ounce ramekins and line the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to fit. Place 2 teaspoons of Lyle’s Golden Syrup in each ramekin. Place the ramekins in a large roasting pan with a clean dish towel beneath them and bring a kettle of water to boil.
Meanwhile, combine half the dates with the warm water and baking soda and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain the dates (while reserving the liquid) and transfer them to a large bowl. In another bowl whisk the flour, baking powder and salt. Process the remaining dates with the remaining 8 teaspoons Lyle’s Golden Syrup in a food processor until just blended and then add the reserved soaking liquid, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and process until smooth. Pour the melted butter into the processor in a steady stream until it’s incorporated. Transfer this mixture to the bowl with the softened dates. Stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture until just combined, then distribute evenly in the ramekins. Fill the roasting pan with boiling water, until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil and bake for approximately 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Do not over bake. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and set on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes.
*Lyle’s Golden Syrup can be found at Orleans Whole Foods Store or at Friends’ Marketplace in Orleans.
British Toffee Sauce
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- ½ cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup
- ⅔ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons dark rum
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and add the Lyle’s Golden Syrup, stirring and cooking for 5 minutes. Pour the heavy cream into the saucepan in a gentle stream and then add the rum. Whisk the mixture and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract.
Gordon Hamersley’s Crème Anglaise
- 1 cup organic heavy cream
- 1 cup whole organic milk
- 1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise, with beans scraped out
- ½ cup sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
Combine the heavy cream, milk and vanilla bean scrapings into a saucepan, along with the vanilla pods. Bring the mixture to a boil to scald and then turn off the heat. Set aside. Whisk the sugar and egg yolks in a medium bowl and very slowly add the hot cream mixture to it, whisking the whole time. Pour this mixture into a clean saucepan and turn the heat to low. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens and coats the back of the spoon, about 10-15 minutes. Strain the sauce into a bowl and place that bowl inside another larger bowl filled with ice. Stir the mixture until it cools and then refrigerate for at least one hour.
Invert each warm ramekin into a shallow serving bowl and remove the parchment lining. Pour the warm toffee sauce over the steamed cake and then garnish with a dollop or two of crème anglaise.