With Thanksgiving out of the way we’re now firmly into “Holiday Season” here in the States — which means indulgence. Also “buying stuff,” but let’s focus on the food for now.
To start with, there’s no such thing as Christmas pudding or mince pies over here. In the UK right now, you probably can’t take two steps without seeing plates, boxes, and displays of them everywhere, but here they’re confined to a few specialty stores. In the States there’s no such thing as a recognizably “christmas dessert” of any kind. Instead, people will decorate generic cakes and cookies (biscuits) with something festive-themed.
In fact, there’s no such thing as “pudding” at all, at least not in the British sense. There’s no sticky toffee pudding or spotted dick or jam roly poly. Instead, “pudding” in the States means something like an Instant Whip confection, eaten chilled. And “custard” here means either an egg-based baked flan-style dessert or, confusingly, a certain style of rich and creamy ice cream — but definitely not a thick and yummy liquid to drizzle over a pudding (remember mashing the chocolate pudding into the chocolate custard at school dinners? Heaven). And the final straw: most cakes don’t have a proper cream-based filling but some ghastly confectioners concoction that tastes like it was extruded from old tires and never saw a cow.
Still, all is not lost on the dessert front. You can get really good ethnic-based specialties in all the big cities, and general American cuisine excels at pies: apple and pretty much any kind of fruit you can imagine, gets made into pie. There’s Mississippi mud pie (really, it tastes divine, made from copious amounts of chocolate) and one of my favorites, key lime pie. Also, pecan pie, sweet potato pie… The list is pretty much endless.
Here in Pennsylvania there’s an Amish specialty called shoofly pie (reportedly so named because all the sugar attracted flies that, yes, you’d have to shoo away). It’s like a really dense cake mix with a thick, gooey molasses bottom. A good shoofly pie has enough sugar to make your teeth ache after one mouthful.
Biscuits, of course, are called cookies and no you won’t find any of the familiar British biscuit brands in the USA. Except for Walkers Shortbread which, for some reason, is widely available, even in the local supermarket.
For the first few years I was here, I really missed things like Jaffa Cakes and Hobnobs and good old McVities. Eventually, you realize that a really good chocolate chip cookie can make up for the loss. And then there’s snickerdoodles — an old fashioned cookie with a sugar cinnamon coating and a sweet and buttery flavor. Yum.
It has to be said. America: your candy is awful. Too much artificial flavoring and way, WAY too sugary.
The chocolate is particularly ghastly. It feels a bit treasonous to say this, given that Pennsylvania is home to Hershey’s, one of the largest and most recognizable chocolate manufacturers in America — but American chocolate is just dreadful. British chocolate tends to have a higher fat and cocoa content; American-made chocolate contains a larger dose of sugar. UK rules say that a product must contain no less than 25% cocoa solids to be considered “milk chocolate.” The US rules, on the other hand, call for milk chocolate to contain no less than 10% chocolate liquor.
The fact that Brits loath most American “candy” is pretty much a universal truth. Google the phrase “American chocolate” and you’ll quickly get a series of articles and pictures expounding on the theme. A colleague at the US-based corporation I used to work for, told me that when he spent a year at the company’s London branch he took a big bag of American candy with him, so that he could put a bowl of candy on his desk for coworkers to sample. After six months, the bowl was still full.
You can find Cadbury’s over here but not only is it more expensive, it’s not the real thing. Hershey’s holds the rights to manufacture Cadbury’s in the States, and although the UK-based firm ships them a dry mix of cocoa solids and milk, Hershey then “completes the manufacturing process,” which can include ‘tweaking’ the recipe to suit American tastes. Hershey even went so far last year as to sue a couple of large importers of British products to prevent any UK-made Cadbury’s products being brought into the USA. The resulting “chocapocalypse” triggered an avalanche of social media protest from lovers of British chocolate, and Hershey’s seems to have quietly dropped any further suits. The good news is that smaller importers are still bringing in the goodies. My favorite is at http://www.jollygrub.com.
The one redeeming feature of American candy is peanuts. Where hazelnut is the default nut flavoring in the UK, here it’s peanuts. I don’t know why but even American chocolate tastes good when paired with the filling in a Reese’s peanut butter cup.