Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #11


Mary-Anne Boermans stood out as a finalist on the British TV program, “The Great British Bake-Off,” in 2011. Since then, she’s shot to the top of culinary success with her stellar Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers, the heart-warming (and stomach-stuffing) product of years of research. And she is the real deal, a person with a passion for the old ways of baking. Her philosophy? “It can be new if we haven’t done it for 200 years,” meaning that hundreds of years of culinary prowess ought not to be dismissed out of hand. With that in mind, I dove into Great British Bakes, simply because I wanted to discover what those hundreds of years possibly meant in terms of modern baking. Not to mention clues about the origins of American baking.

One of the most exciting of this series of British cookbooks is book #11:


11Great British Bakes; Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers, by Mary-Anne Boermans (2013):

Thanks to a driving curiosity – and a desire to feed her daughter with wholesome and traditional cooking, Ms. Boermans embarked on the journey that led her to The Great British Bake Off in 2011 and this gem of a cookbook. She admits to liking new things as much as the next person, but for her, “new” really means “old” when it comes to food.

Ms. Boermans organized Great British Bakes in a manner reflecting that of cookbooks from centuries past. The Table of Contents reveals sections devoted to Large Cakes, Biscuits, Gingerbread, Pastry, Puddings, Small Cakes, Yeast, and Bits and Bobs. She starts off with an extensive pantry list for bakers, in itself a wonderful resource even if you don’t make a single recipe in the book. The recipes stem from old printed and manuscript cookbooks, including many found in the Wellcome Institute Library. Some footnotes provide specific access to some of the author’s source materials. And the comprehensive index covers both recipes and people and places.

OK, the recipes. What’s so special about them? For one thing, they’re do-able. For another, the history notes add to a much greater understanding of what people back in the day thought was worth writing down. And eating, too! Since few people mentioned food, to find detailed references – as in manuscript cookbooks or elsewhere –  means something very special. A few examples: The second recipe in the book – Beer Cake, courtesy of Miss Heath from Tonbridge – appeared in Florence White’s Good Things in England, and dates to the 1820s, using a bitter British beer of the more traditional type. And then there are jewels like “Wiggs” from 1686, which are simply scrumptious (I know, I made some). Ms. Boermans really goes to town in finding out just why people dubbed these spiced yeasty rolls with another one of those seemingly weird English recipe names. The whole book resembles one huge scavenger hunt, only with recipe secrets, including an anecdote about Jumbles (a type of small cake you would call a “cookie”) and King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. By the way, Jumbles appear in early American cookery books, too, cousins to sugar cookies and the like. So does Chocolate Meringue Pie, dating to 1777, with a puff pastry crust, a treasure from Charlotte Mason.

Ms. Boermans took most of the photographs of the finished recipes in the book, except for the Dutch-heritage lace pancake, which reminded me of something a cook taught me in Thailand. If I have any major complaint about the book, it would be that there are not enough photographs.  Because many of the recipes are not commonly made these days, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine just what the result is supposed to look like. And, oh yes, rumor has it that we may soon see a “savoury” volume of Great British Bakes in the new future. Hopefully that one will contain more photographs to guide cooks on their journeys into “old” food.

Until then, rest assured that you will dart into your kitchen pretty much the minute you open Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers.

Here’s a link to some of the photos that did not make it into the book; thanks to Ms. Boermans for alerting me to this link.

Check out all of the books in this series:

1. Florence White’s Good Things in England

2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England

3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles

4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen

5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things

6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book

7. Jane Grigson’s English Food

8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook

9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book

10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers 

12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston


© 2015 C. Bertelsen