If I were being brutally upfront when asked what my greatest skill is, I’d say it’s finding something that sufficiently distracts my whirring brain, and then obsessing over it to an alarming degree. While I’m going on half a lifetime of a borderline-“Swim Fan” affair with the British Isles, I’ve been forced to find more nuanced components of my Anglophilia to keep myself engaged. Having run through the “The Complete History of the English Speaking Peoples” and collected an absurd number of World War I and II books, traveled up, down and sideways through the U.K., and indulged wholeheartedly in the BBC’s back catalogue, I thought I was running out of options.
That was, of course, until I discovered “The Great British Bake Off” a few years ago, and it let me watch the most delightful humans alive bake their little hearts off making the scones, Victoria Sandwich cakes, and jams I’ve most enjoyed indulging in during my travels. But while the show became my own personal meditation hour, I was never tempted to give it a try myself. For one, I’m not a baker. I’ve spent my life cooking alongside my family, forsaking recipes, and indulging in Southern whims when it comes to flavors and measurements. I could easily go a full year without using measuring cups or spoons, and when asked how I made something, I could only provide noncommittal grunts, because frankly it was all intuition. Plus, I was abysmal at chemistry, so baking and I were a non-starter.
But the beginning of 2017 dawned dark and bleak with a sorta-expected layoff from my job, the inauguration of a buffoon, and the realization my house buying was indefinitely delayed. I needed a challenging distraction in the worst way and I was craving a scone with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam that’s nearly impossible to acquire on my side of the pond. And so during a binge of the “Bakeoff,” I found myself deciding to give it a whirl.
It being me though, I had to make it even more challenging on myself, by using only British recipes. That meant everything was in metric, the dry goods all had to be weighed in grams, and the cooking temperatures were all in Celsius. I figured a bit of Googling and some conversions would see me through, but I didn’t expect that the basic ingredients would often be different, have surprising names, or that the pan sizes would all be different.
My first step then, was trying to learn the lingo and find the American equivalents. Nearly every recipe required caster sugar which is essentially our superfine sugar, but good luck getting this in a large enough quantity for a reasonable amount. Muscovado sugar was easy enough to tackle, as it’s just our brown sugar, and as far as I can tell, “strong flour” is the equivalent of our bread flour. Golden syrup and black treacle seem to be on par with our Karo syrup and molasses, but I’ve yet to test that out. The lingo alone took some getting used to.
Most of these differences I’ve trying to adapt to via trial and error. I figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference to use granulated sugar, but I was wrong, it left everything with a vaguely grainy taste and scones that barely rose and ended up all too flat. Self-rising flour is not the same as our cake flour, and just adding extra baking powder does not make up the difference as my flat Victoria sponge and scones proved. Bread recipes that called for semolina flour as an option, really did require it as it provides the coating for the extra crunch in the crust and keeps everything from being far too covered in flour. When recipes call for 20 cm. tray bake tins and two-lb. loaf pans that are not found in any of my local stores, they mean it, as squishing the bread and the brownies into too small pans means they don’t have the room to stretch out and bake properly. When the recipe says to proof a loaf in a square box in a semi-warm environment, it means if you don’t, it will get a weird crust on the dough and it won’t rise. And for some reason none of the American butter I tried to use ever yielded the proper consistency for creaming, even when softened for 24 hours. I’m still not sure why—perhaps the fat content is different—but as soon as I switched to Irish butter, it all came together.
Throughout the last month, my bakes have largely been a combination of obsessive attention to detail while improvising like mad. And along the way I somehow discovered I’m not entirely horrible at it. I can see room for improvement in nearly everything I’ve made and learning how to adjust accordingly. While the constant math was making my brain hurt, I realized that I could balance the food scale to zero out the weight of the bowl, and allowing me to not have to keep adding and adding and adding. I’ve even begun to be able to eyeball roughly the weights, knowing that a certain number of spoonfuls of flour will be nearly exactly 225 grams, and a few less will be the equivalent for sugar. After adding extra vanilla and coffee to brownies and putting them into too small a pan, I realized next time I needed to add a bit more flour to balance out the excess liquid to help them cook more evenly. I’m slowly learning that even as precise as baking is, there’s still very much a level of instinct to it.
Though perhaps what I’ve enjoyed the most, besides from eating all these delicious bakes, is learning the theory and techniques of baking. Paul Hollywood’s Bread book has been an amazing wealth of knowledge and when followed exactly, it turns out precisely how he says it will. He may be a bit of a curmudgeon on the “Bake Off” but his techniques and ability to tell you exactly what went wrong—and how to correct it—is uncanny, and his book and blog have taught me loads. Mary Berry’s Baking Bible has an endless supply of sweet bakes, but even more so a glossary of terms, techniques, and supplies for the amateur baker.
Slowly but surely, I find British baking to be rewiring the way I think about the chemistry of food, how it balances, and the artful combination of flavor and presentation. Is it so different from American baking? Probably not, but as I craft a Cornish pasty, meld English cheddars and mustards into a loaf, and slather on cream and jam to a Victoria sponge, I feel closer to my beloved Britain. Baking the staples of a culture, doing it in the traditional manner crafted over decades and sometimes even centuries, brings a new understanding of a land. I find comfort in baking for afternoon tea for my family, watching their delight as I pair a perfectly brewed pot of Darjeeling with a coffee Victoria sponge and buttercream cake. I love making a (admittedly slightly misshapen) ciabatta or baguette to pair with a homemade meal and seeing it meld seamlessly with our Southern staples.
What began as a distraction and puzzle for my brain has become a sense of comfort and a way to bring the British isles just a little bit closer to home. And for a Southern girl, that’s what food is all about—no matter how fussy or difficult it might be—creating something made with heart for your loved ones and giving them a little taste of home.