London cakes

When travelling I'm invariably drawn to shops selling the local pastries, where the cakes on offer
are rarely labelled and so I'm usually forced to resort to the pointing and the 'one of those please'. 

So as a service to you if you've ever been confused by the cakes on sale in London bakers and cake shops,
or if you want to come prepared, I present the largely non-book-related Fictional Cities guide to the cakes
of my home town, and of my youth. And of course no guide to cakes in London can ignore the tasty imports,
especially the Polish and Portuguese pastries now making inroads into our bellies.


Apple Turnovers
An uncontroversial cake to start with - it's a square (or circle) of sugar-laden flaky pastry folded and filled with apple, or usually some sugary apple-based gloop not unlike baby food. The only real mystery here is, or was, why there aren't turnovers containing any other fruit. I had heard rumours but not until I clapped my eyes on, and my mouth around, the raspberry turnover (pictured below left) did I truly believe. An apple and blackcurrant turnover has been spotted too. And bought. And eaten.

Bakewell Pudding

Also known as a Bakewell Tart, although the authentic item baked only in three shops in Bakewell (photographed left) - who all claim to have the original recipe locked in their fireproof safes - has traditionally always been called a pudding. The inauthentic versions, always called tarts and often baked by Mr Kipling, have an icing top and a more evident layer of jam. The original relies on it's stout almond paste filling and is made from flaky pastry. Amongst the inauthentic varieties is also to be found the Cherry Bakewell, which has a glacé cherry on top.


Bath Buns
A bun which you usually eat in the bath. No, seriously...the bath bun was invented, so the story goes, by Dr W. Oliver, an 18th Century physician who treated visitors to the famous Bath Spa. His bun proved so popular, and his patients grew so fat, that he had to invent a plain biscuit - hence the Bath Oliver biscuit - for his patients to eat instead. The chunks of sugar sprinkled on the top of this otherwise rather plain bun were originally sugar-coated caraway seeds.

(aka Battenburg)

Bought in a brick and sliced, like fruit cake, the battenberg is a cake for the almond fan, its icing surround being more than a little marzipanish and, as with the frangipan tart, there's apricot jam too. It's famous for the pink and yellow check pattern of its sponge cake, which would be less desirable in, say, a shirt. (The large checker-board patterns on emergency vehicles in the UK are, I've just learned, called battenburg markings.) Said to have been first made to honour the marriage of one of Queen Victoria's granddaughters to Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884, with each of the four squares representing one of the Battenberg princes.

Pimp your battenberg and A brick battenberg


Belgian Buns
This brings us to the thorny subject of cakes (and biscuits) named after places, and the question of whether this naming actually reflects the cake's place of origin. I've never seen or eaten a Florentine in Florence, the best Chelsea buns seem to be baked in Cambridge, and I doubt that Danish pastries bear any resemblance to pastries nibbled in Denmark.  So if you can confirm that Belgian Buns - an iced current bun with a cherry garnish - come from Belgium, I'd be grateful. A cursory Google of Belgian bun throws up (apart from an inaccurate Wikipedia entry) sundry mentions on UK sites only. These are mostly bun-obsessed bloggers, including one rightly disturbed by a pack of Tesco's Belgian buns containing lemon curd - yuk! (Although in fairness it must be added that the weirdly lemon-curd-obsessed bakers of Tesco have also given us the very yummy lemon curd croissant.) So Belgium may just retain its pure image as the land of fine chocolate and waffles.

Update - June 2006
Prompted by the above, Jillian Wilkinson writes:
We lived in Brussels for 20 years and ate many of these things - they are called couque aux raisins and are similar to the British one but not so much icing sugar on top, and even lack the cherry sometimes.
So, a bit of a shocker, because before reading this I would have said that a Belgian Bun without a cherry is not a Belgian Bun. And of course the cake wouldn't be called a Belgian bun in Belgium, now would it? The water is further muddied by talk of the Couque Suisse, but this seems to have more than a little of the Danish Pastry about it; and it's finger-shaped.

Update - March 2008

Now, to further stir the controversy, comes an e-mail from Denyse Sanderson (a Brit now living in the USA) who says:
Whilst living in Belgium (for 5.5 years) I never found a Belgian bun for sale. The couque aux raisins mentioned in your website has more of a Danish pastry consistency.
Elsewhere in her e-mail Denyse establishes her bun cred by saying she's had Belgian buns with and without the cherry; with and without nuts on top; with lemon curd inside; and with a blob of marzipan in the middle. So she seems to be a woman to be trusted.


Bread Pudding

A slab of dense, moist and spicy sponge, tasting a bit like booze-free Christmas pudding. This one's traditionally eaten hot with custard and is made from stale bread, as is...

Bread 'n' Butter Pudding
...but this one also has the appearance and texture of having been made from slices of bread, soaked in milk, with sugar, raisins and spices (cinnamon and/or nutmeg). It is also eaten hot and, being pretty squidgy, is eaten with a fork and so is really more of a pudding than a cake. In times past it was a way for poor people to use up leftover stale bread. Now we have more money and buy bread 'n' butter pudding ready-made from supermarkets, with added cream.

NB: The B'n'B pudding was photographed on a larger plate. 


Cheese Cakes
Not to be confused with cheese cake - these are sometimes called London Cheese Cakes to reduce confusion. They have a base of flaky pastry topped with icing that's full of coconut shreds. I have a memory of  jam filling too. It's a cake that can be flaky and crumbly or soft and chewy. I prefer the latter. But why is it called a cheese cake? A very good question.

July 2016 update Speaking to my memory of the jam filling, the Brick Lane bagel bakery that is not the actual famous and tourist-clogged Brick Lane Bagel Bakery does what it unconfusingly calls the Coconut Puff (see left) with a quite deep jammy lake in it. Mine was cherry.


Chelsea Buns
Bearing in mind my obsession, already confessed to, with the puzzling origins of cakes named after places, imagine my delight a few years back at a British Museum exhibition of old prints of London in spotting a print of a place called The Chelsea Bun House. It was situated in Jew’s Row, near Grosvenor Row, by the Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens and so not strictly in Chelsea. Jonathan Swift visited in 1711 and got a stale bun for a penny. In its 18th Century heyday the place was run by a Richard Hand, known as Captain Bun, and patronised by George II and Queen Caroline, and all the princesses, and later by George III and Queen Charlotte.

A local poet described the buns as
Fragrant as honey and sweeter in taste!
As flaky and white as if baked by the light,
As the flesh of an infant soft, doughy and slight.

Later in the century the crowds that gathered to buy Chelsea buns and hot cross buns on Good Friday were such that Mrs Hand made the hard decision to cease selling them on that day.

John Timbs in his Curiosities of London - as quoted on Mick Jackson's excellent Victorian London site - has this to say about the Bun House's later days and demise: Chelsea has been famed for its Buns since the commencement of the last century... The Bun-house was also much frequented by visitors to Ranelagh, after the closing of which the bun-trade declined. Notwithstanding, on Good Friday, April 18, 1839, upwards of 240,000 buns were sold here. Soon after, the Bun-house was sold and pulled down; and at the same time was dispersed a collection of pictures, models, grotesque figures, and modern antiques, which had for a century added the attractions of a museum to the bun celebrity. Another bun-house was built; but the olden charm of the place had fled. 

Charles Dickens also mentions the place in Barnaby Rudge (the beginning of chapter 42 if you want to check) and in Bleak House (chapter 53). In 1855 a novel was published called The Old Chelsea Bun House: A Tale of the Last Century by Anne Manning.

In 1850 the baker Joseph Tuck (from whose name the phrase ‘tuck shop’ derives, we're told) created a the Hackney bun at his bakery in Goldsmith’s Row, East London, a mere bun's-throw from the house where I was born. It was very like a Chelsea bun, except that its currants were soaked in some undisclosed alcoholic beverage.

The bun itself is a big favourite of mine, being one of the few UK cakes to contain a real cinnamon kick. Cinnamon buns are unknown over here. It's curiously square and made from a deep roll of raisin-spotted dough. It can be enjoyed in the traditional unsubtle biting way, or by unrolling the spiral (see above left) and nibbling as you go.

Early 2011 saw the sad closure of Fitzbillies in Cambridge. Chelsea Bun fans mourned the loss of a famed source, until news emerged of a reopening and a Chelsea Bun Weekend over the August Bank Holiday weekend. I made a special trip to Cambridge in early September, but I have to admit to no little disappointment. The bun (photographed above left) was sweeter than I like, and I prefer a sugary topping to this one's glazed and syrupy finish. The buns from Borough Market still reign. (Fitzbillies also sell cheese Chelsea buns. I ask you - have you ever heard of anything more unnatural?) In recent years I've also heard of trendy bakeries using pistachios and blueberries in the making of Chelsea buns, but who can believe such impure acts are possible. In better news Peyton & Byrne branches in London - there's one in the King's Cross Eurostar terminal - do a fine authentic Chelsea bun, but also a marmalade version that I've not tried.

Chorley Cakes

Another place-named cake, like the Eccles cake below, and like the Eccles cake this is chock-full of raisins. The only difference is in the pastry, which is less flaky and more biscuit-y with this one. A flatter and less airy eating experience results.


Cinnamon Buns
The twenty-teens have seen the appearance in London of sundry bakeries which might generically be termed Nordic, and one of the first was called The Nordic Bakery, funnily enough. What these places share is a tendency to produce cinnamon buns. Said buns are mostly delicious, but vary considerably, mostly in density. The heaviest is the one from the aforementioned Nordic Bakery (I frequent the branch in Golden Square near Piccadilly Circus). The lightest is produced by Bageriet, in the alley down the side of Stanfords in Covent Garden. But the happy medium (see photo left) and the best cinnamon bun experience in London, in my opinion, comes from Fabrique, by Hoxton railway station. They also do a cardamom bun, which I also recommend.

Bageriat also do a cinnamon and apple cake (see photo left) which is another of one's current faves. Also the one you can get in Balham (right) with the actual cinnamon icing.

Cream Horns
When I were a lad these were full of sweet imitation cream, but now they seem to be found only in supermarket fridges full of fresh cream and jam. The problem of which end you start with remains - I go for the non-pointy end myself.

Custard Tarts

A deep tart, full of custard, but cool and wobbly set custard, not hot and runny custard, and flavoured with nutmeg. Supposedly first baked in East Anglia, with a history dating back to the medieval period. When I was young you could buy them in Hoxton from baker's shop windows, now they are mostly found in boxes in supermarket fridges. The have been fashionably superseded by the Portuguese Custard Tart.

An Apple Danish

Danish Pastries

OK, we'll take my thing about place-named cakes as read here. I'm hoping that some kind soul in Denmark might be able to help me out. Danish pastries as they're known in the UK are united by having a moist and chewy and quite heavy pastry. Beyond that there are several varieties and shapes. The simplest is the Fruit Danish, which is just a swirl of pastry with raisins. The Custard Danish, The Apricot Danish and the Apple Danish introduce us to different shapes, though. These flavours take the classic shape of the square of pastry with two opposite corners meeting. And sometimes they take the apple-turnover form.

Update - August 2008
Some clarity at last. Barbara from Michael's Cycles in Worthing has a Danish mother-in-law who writes thusly:
The Danes don’t really have a word covering all of their range of Danish Pastries, tending to call each one by its particular name, and then they have a different type of pastry for times of the day, but generically they talk in terms of Wienerbrød. It really refers to the kringler, the big horseshoe shaped one that you have for breakfast. The name comes from the time when Danish bakers went to Vienna (Wien) in the Napoleonic wars and brought back what they had learned whilst there. Barbara also informs me that the custard ones are known in Denmark as 'Pus in the Baker's Eye'. Lovely.

But then clarity descends into controversy! Richard in California finds a source that claims that some Austrian bakers who were hired to replace Danish bakers during a strike passed on their method (of rolling butter between the layers of puff pastry then letting it rest before shaping and baking) which the Danish bakers then spread around the World. So it's either a pastry technique that Danish bakers brought back from Austria or one that the Austrian bakers themselves took to Denmark.

Praise be to Greggs for giving us the Coconut Snowball Doughnut in 2011. It had a coconut creme filling too. It was one of a range of new doughnut creations, which also included the Jaffa Cake doughnut and the Slime doughnut, the latter featured unnervingly coloured  lime-flavoured icing. All are now mere memories.


Another cake derived from the problem of leftovers, as the first doughnuts were reportedly made to use up leftover bits of bread dough. And another transatlantic controversy rears its head, but not as bad and puzzling as the muffin question, below. Your basic doughnut is a ball of dough, covered in sugar, with jam in the centre (pictured left) or a ring of dough covered in sugar. (The ring shape arrived at, we're told, to solve the problem of the uncooked centre and to make for more crispy evenness). And for centuries no one messes with this cosmic order. Then along comes the US of A and, well, Krispy Kreme - need I say more? Just like the influence of America in putting all sorts of weird toppings on pizzas that are unknown in Italy, so the doughnut has become a toppings free-for-all. Not all of them are gross, mind you - some involve cinnamon and are hence divinely inspired. In the words of Homer Simpson, wise for once, Doughnuts, is there anything they can't do? Oh and there's the anomalous apple doughnut, which is like an semi-circular apple turnover, but made of doughnut.

See also Yum-Yums - long and twisted doughnuts, sometimes seen flattened and filled with apple jam-y stuff.

Eccles Cakes
This site, and this one too, tell of the murky history of claims regarding the invention and marketing of the Eccles cake, which originates from the place up north, somewhere. But wherever it is that they came from up there, they're now pretty common down here. Flaky pastry filled with raisins, basically, or sometimes a raisin paste - great if you like raisins, less attractive to the raisin-hater. The garibaldi biscuit (a biscuit with lots of raisins in it) was known in my childhood as the squashed-fly biscuit. But to my knowledge the Eccles has never been called...well, you get my point.

Frangipan tarts
A strangely named lattice-pattern covered spongy tart tasting of almonds and often with some apricot jam involvement. They are sometimes also called frangipane tarts. The name seems to have nothing to do with the frangipani, a flower, but it is not unrelated to marzipan, I think, what with the almond thing. Sometimes another fruity ingredient will be added resulting in, for example, the apple or cherry frangipan tart. Sometimes this mixing up will result in the frangipan metamorphosising into franzipan, which takes us back to marzipan. So much semantic confusion over one small cake.


Fruit Cake
'Fruit' here means currents and raisins (and often cherries) similarly to the 'Fruit Danish' which signifies circularness and the presence of raisins. Fruit cake is mostly sold in brick-like slabs, or made domestically in the traditional round cake shape, but it is also available in individual slices. Sometimes known as cherry genoa. It also comes in a paler circular form with a sugary top, where its name then acquires one or more of the words country, house, traditional and manor. And, again - you'll have seen this coming by now - does the name "cherry genoa" have anything to do with Genoa the place? At Christmas fruit cake traditionally acquires a layer of marzipan, a layer of icing and two small penguins.


Hot Cross Buns
Formerly only available around Easter but now a year-round fixture of supermarket cake shelves in packs of four. The symbolism seems obvious, but the bun dates, in fact, from before Christianity, as the Saxons baked them to honour their goddess Eostre, with the bun representing the sun and the cross the moon's four quarters. Basically it's a sticky, spicy bun with a contrasting pale cross on top. Best split and buttered, they can also be split, toasted and buttered. Spreading jam on them as well is gilding the lily, in my opinion.

UK supermarkets have been indulging in lily-gilding too in recent years with many new versions of this old favourite. You can get Extra Spicy, Luxury (which usually just means more raisins), Apple & Cinnamon, Date and Cranberry, Cinnamon & Raisin and (brace yourself) Belgian Chocolate versions.

Branches of Patisserie Valerie in London only sell their hot cross buns for a month or so before Easter, and they were the best, but have gotten much less dense and spicy in recent years. Konditor & Cook are now the preferred bun in this household, although they are a bit stingy with their raisins.



Iced Fingers

A long iced bun, sometimes known as a Swiss Iced Finger, although whether it actually originated in Switzerland... Used to come with a filling of sweet confectioners' 'cream' in my day, but not anymore.


About as far from a London cake as is possible - this one hails from Australia. A slab of sponge with a layer of strawberry jam in the middle is covered in chocolatey stuff and coated in desiccated coconut. Not what you'd call sophisticated, but a treat not to be passed up, especially as they are not often found for sale over here. They are common in South Africa too, it seems, and New Zealand, where a raspberry version is popular. Lemon Lamingtons being another permutation. There's controversy over the origins of the cake, but mostly there's agreement that it was named after Lord Lamington, who was Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. The man himself was less than keen, referring to them as "those bloody poofy woolly biscuits", presumably whilst spluttering and/or blustering and fiddling with his copious moustache.


Madeira Cake

Another place-name cake, this is one that you buy in a slab and spread with butter, or your low-fat spread of choice. The spreading is pretty much essential as it's pretty boring without. Before-and-after photographs (left) demonstrate the difference.

I once knew a chap who liked to dip Madeira cake into his tea, like the rest of us do with biscuits. But this is not a wise or risk-free thing to do, and I advise you not to try it at home.


Marlborough buns
A new one on me. A bit like a rock cake but with some glazing going on, sugar bits, currents, and a citrus thing, I think. Nice, and not needing buttering. My not having heard of them before may be because they seem to be a recent invention of Marks & Spencer and/or Waitrose, which look to be the only sources.


Here's another big Transatlantic can of worms. We've had muffins over here for bloomin' years - that's a picture of one over on the left. It's a boring soft white-bread thing you have to split and toast and put jam on, like crumpets, except for the splitting part. So far so traditional. But then we get globalised and muffins become interesting home-bakeable things like large fairy cakes, but chewier and tastier, and they're everywhere, and so real muffins became known as English Muffins, except over here where they're still just called muffins, as are the other sort. Clear?


Polish cakes

I live quite near Balham in South West London, an area that's long been a popular settling place for Poles, but with the recent increase in immigration from Eastern Europe there are more Polish people than ever living around here. Which means more Polish shops and delis, which means more places to find...

Paczki Polish doughnuts
Not dissimilar to the regular jam doughnut, but with a thin layer of icing over the top and sides. This icing has a citrusy tang to it and often contains bits of orange zest. The jam inside is traditionally rose-water flavoured. Not dissimilar then, just much nicer. They are traditionally eaten on the 'Fat Thursday', before Shrove Tuesday.


Drozdzowka Polish apple and cinnamon thing
I did the traditional 'what's that?' point and ask thing. And what it is is large and made of a bun-type pastry. It has a big dent full of chunky real-apple filling, and it's not light on the cinnamon.



Poppy seed cake
Can be (and is more usually) bought as a big slab that you slice up, but also comes as individual cakes. Redolent of the Danish in shape, but more bunlike and light in consistency, and chock full of poppy seeds, as you'd expect. The taste is unexpected, though, being more full of flavour than the ingredients might suggest. Maybe something else is going on here. Also said by the woman in my local Polish deli to be traditionally more of a Christmas thing.


A darkish and squarish doughnut with coconut-flecked icing and a custardy filling. The sweetness of the icing tends to overwhelm the coconut bits a bit, and the added zing of the filling makes for a decidedly unsubtle cake, but not an unpleasant one


Portuguese Custard Tarts
Pretty similar to the native version, except smaller and with a pastry base that's best described as stout and chewy flaky pastry. They're also quite a bit sweeter with that caramelised topping replacing the nutmeg. So not really that similar at all.

Known in Portugal as pastéis de nata they were first created by Catholic nuns at the Jerónimos Monastery in an area of Lisbon called Belém. The Casa Pastéis de Belém bought the 'secret' recipe and continued making them when the convent closed in 1820, and then they were renamed Pastéis de Belém. This authentic version is sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar, it is said



Simnel Cake
An Easter cake that's only in the shops around Easter time, unlike the hot cross bun. There is confusion as to whether the cake is named after Lambert Simnel, a fraudulent pretender to the throne of Henry VII who failed in an overthrow attempt but was pardoned and allowed to work in the King's bakery, or from a Roman bread called Siminellus. There is also talk of a cake-making argument between a couple called Simon and Nelly, but this sounds far too twee for my liking, or believing.

It is said to have traditionally been cooked by poor girls working as servants for rich folk, to be given to their mothers on Mothering Sunday, for which servants and apprentices got time off to go and visit, providing they weren't gone longer than five days. Back then the cake was thinner and harder and so more akin to a biscuit, it is said.

Now it's a light, quite spicy, fruitcake with a soft marzipan layer in the middle. It's topped with marzipan and has eleven marzipan balls on top which symbolise the apostles, minus Judas. (Those with twelve balls are said to represent the apostles minus Judas, but with an added ball for Jesus.) The more perceptive amongst you might be getting the impression that this is a cake for marzipan lovers. Spot on!


Tottenham Sponge
As place-named cakes go this is an obscure one, I admit. A sponge cake topped with jam, and occasionally sprinkled with desiccated coconut flakes, at least it was in Anderson's bakeries in Hoxton when I was a nipper. Not a sophisticated cake, but with a simple charm all its own in this age of passion cake and patisseries. Controversially a cake going by the same name has been spotted (and photographed left) with an unnatural-looking pink icing on it, and some will claim it was ever so. 

Also there's a bakery in Nunhead in South East London that make something called Totty, which sounds very like.

Update - November 2008
A helpful chap called Alan sends me a link which challenges my belief that the Tottenham Sponge is authentically jam-red rather than a bilious pink. This site has a quote from Ted (later Lord) Willis's autobiography in which he says: "a peculiar local invention was Tottenham Cake. It consisted of a scone like base covered with lurid pink icing. It was baked in long flat trays, then cut into cubes, which retailed for a penny each. Luckily the cake was not always cut evenly or the icing uniformly spread, and the smaller defective pieces were sold off at half price."


All cakes photographed by me and guaranteed eaten within mere minutes of the photograph being taken. 
No waste here.

And you can't get more English than an Anglo-Saxon cupcake!
Barmycakes confection.

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin