Whether it's the sour kind for salad or the clotted one for scones, there's something very satisfying about cream.
All my life, I think, I've heard English food being dissed. In jokes (“What would heaven have? German engineers, French cooks, Italian lovers and English butlers. And hell? German lovers, French engineers, Italian butlers and English cooks”. Or something on these lines, equally prejudiced), and by aesthetes and connoisseurs.
But since I'm neither, I'm happy to report that I love English food. It's possible that my exposure is so limited that I know no better, but can anyone feed me a better breakfast sausage? The skinless wonders that now pass for sausages in India shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the plump English ones whose casing bursts and lets the meat filling spill out and get crisp. And the way they do their eggs ... but of those another time.
Scones and cream
An English breakfast is accepted as a standard, but isn't their “tea” on par? I went to London recently, and had a two-point agenda: breakfast and cream tea. I started by telling local friends that I wanted to have scones with cream and jam and was interrupted with “Oh, a cream tea!” To begin with, the name is seductive: not afternoon tea, not high tea, cream tea.
So one afternoon, feeling pious and sated, I stepped out of the Tate Modern and into their cafeteria for a cup of tea. This one, unlike all the others I saw wasn't called a “Caffè” (The accent is deliberate. Maybe it's a Eurofication of the traditional “caff”?) but it offered cream teas. They arrived, each with one large scone, a pot of dark red jam and a huge dollop of cream. The scone was warm and crusty, with a hint of sugar and a few currants. I asked for a fork and the waitress looked at me pityingly and pointed to the knife and spoon. So the scone was cut open and the cream spread.
Now that cream was like no other I've ever had. It was cream colored, almost yellow, and had the smooth, rich texture and consistency of butter that has been softened and whipped. The jam was okay; but not required. The warm scone, generously piled with cream, was enough. Then one day I got another chance. The difference was that here they served four small scones and the jam was in thick glass bottles. But the cream was exactly the same.
So I came back and looked up clotted cream. This is a thick yellow cream traditionally made by leaving unpasteurised cow's milk in shallow pans for a few hours until the cream rises to the top. Then the whole is first gently heated and then cooled. It is chiefly made in Devon and Cornwall and the locals think they invented it.
And a scone — pronounced “skon” in Scotland and “scoan” in the south — can be savoury or sweet. The sweet ones, served usually with jam and whipped or clotted cream, are made from wheat flour sifted with baking powder; a little sugar, butter, eggs and milk are added. This mixture is rolled into a thick sheet, cut into rounds and baked in an oven. “This recipe, so simple and excellent, should not be messed around with”. Alan Davidson, the author of The Oxford Companion to Food, should know.
I'm not a dessert person, but since a scone is hardly sweet, many can be consumed. The satisfaction of filling up on warm baked goods and cream is unmatched. Yet my favourite part of a meal is the main course. One lunch I was so confused by the menu that I settled on a quiche. Which was hot, with a fork-tender crust filled with a custard of cream, eggs, bacon and cheese. This was good, very good, but the part that was exceptional was the accompanying potato salad dressed with sour cream. The potatoes were small and oblong, like miniature bolsters, cut crosswise into two, reddish skin intact. Russet?
Not traditional English
The slightly acidic taste of the cream offset its heaviness and was made even more interesting by the occasional broken peppercorn, aromatic snipped chives and crunchy finely chopped parsley stems. Apparently sour cream, smetana, is used traditionally in Russia and Eastern Europe, but to quote Davidson again, “Sour cream is an example of a dairy product in motion... it's use has been steadily spreading westwards.” Neither quiche nor sour cream are traditionally English then, but one might as well give up on “authenticity”: scones, schoonbrot or sconbrot, is traditionally Scottish. And as we all know, there were no potatoes either, east of the Atlantic, until the 16th century.
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup currants or raisins
5 tbsp cream (approximately)
1 egg, beaten
Method: Heat oven to 200º C (400º F). Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Add sugar. Cut butter into flour mixture with two knives until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in one egg, raisins and some of the cream; just enough for the dough to collect and leave the sides of the bowl. Lightly flour a work surface and turn dough onto it. Knead lightly 10 times. Roll into a thick sheet and cut into two-inch rounds with a cookie cutter or into diamond shapes with a sharp knife.
Place on ungreased cookie sheet and brush tops with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately remove from cookie sheet and cool on wire rack. Serve warm, with cream and jam.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).
Keywords: cream recipes