A cross-culture culinary exchange

A British recipe sometimes needs 'explaining' to an American audience.

It suddenly struck me. Maybe my brother's wife was the one to ask. What I was after was the recipe for Mrs. Johnson's Uncooked Cake. My sister-in-law is a longtime whiz in the culinary department and always seems to have a houseful of offspring – and offspring of offspring – eager for cakes.

It turned out I was quite right.

Mrs. Johnson's Uncooked Cake caught the attention of a reader of these pages when I made a nostalgic mention of this confection – a boyhood pleasure at the tea table – in an essay about my mother's cookery. The reader asked for the recipe. However, I had rather imagined that the ingredients and procedures for making this cake had vanished with the sands of time. But no! Sisters-in-law have their uses, after all. Indeed, as she told me, she had copied all sorts of recipes including this one into a book long ago, and when that fell apart through much use, she copied them into another.

So this recipe had, after all, been handed down by my mother. She in her turn had it from Mrs. Johnson, a lady she knew at church.

My suspicion is that there could well be many variations on this recipe's theme out there, though Mrs. Johnson's name is probably attached to it only in our family.

Here is her recipe, as written in British English. But before I give the details, I realize that for any reader under a certain vintage, and for any reader where American rather than British English is spoken, a degree of interpretation may be essential. Above, my editor has tested the recipe, made a few changes, and "translated" it into terminology Americans will understand. But some explanation of the original might still be of interest.

Right at the outset, Dorothy's recipe may be puzzling: "Take '1 shell egg,' " she advises. From this, it may be assumed that this was a wartime cake, or at least just postwar, when shortages of all sorts were still prevalent in Britain. The dearth of eggs was so acute that powdered egg often had to be used instead. This was fairly revolting, and clearly it would not do for Dorothy's treat. I should perhaps mention that "1 shell egg" does not mean that the shell should be used as part of the recipe. Just the white and the yolk. I'll incorporate further explanations in the recipe as it progresses:

So, take

1 shell egg

1 ounce caster sugar

Beat thoroughly together.

("Caster sugar" may be a specifically British thing. It is a very fine sugar, but not powdery like icing sugar, or confectioners' sugar in the US).

Add 4 ounces melted margarine, a little at a time. Beat thoroughly into the mixture.

(Butter was difficult to obtain, too; so margarine became a staple substitute.)

Add 4 ounces plain chocolate, melted. Beat in thoroughly.

(In Britain, chocolate divides into three categories – white, milk, and plain. Plain is sweetened dark chocolate).

Add 6 ounces broken digestive biscuits. Mix in with a wooden spoon.

("Biscuits" in Britain are frangible, brittle things, often sweet. Not unlike the crisper kinds of American cookies. At one time – but no longer today, my sister-in-law informs me – you could actually buy, cheaply, bags of broken biscuits. Now you have to buy them whole and break them up yourself. This makes me wonder if broken biscuits are simply thrown away these days? And why are they no longer marketable? Dorothy used round "digestives." These would be best, but I believe that in the US, "graham crackers" come close.

Mix in 8 drops of vanilla essence.

("Essence" in this case is the British word for "extract." My sister-in-law feels that 8 drops is far too many. It's a matter of taste, I suppose.)

Press mixture into a round cake tin with a removable base.

Here again is an example of the fascinating discrepancies that have developed over the centuries between American English and British English – discrepancies that seem to be particularly frequent where cooking is concerned. In Britain, we have cake tins. (We also have tins of baked beans, but that's another story). In America, it seems you have cake "pans." And in the US, pans with removable bottoms aren't as common as those with removable sides – called springform pans – which all adds up to the same thing. Dorothy Johnson would be amazed.

Serve and eat.

I imagine this makes the same delectable sense on both sides of the Atlantic.

English Unbaked Confection for Americans

1/4 cup liquid egg product*

2 tablespoons superfine sugar**

1 stick (4 ounces) margarine, melted

4 ounces sweet dark chocolate, melted

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 ounces English digestive biscuits (cookies) or American graham crackers, broken into pieces

In a mixing bowl using an electric mixer, blend together egg product and sugar. Beat in melted butter (no hotter than lukewarm) a bit at a time. Thoroughly mix in melted chocolate and vanilla.

Add biscuit/graham cracker pieces to chocolate mixture and blend thoroughly with a wooden spoon.

Spray an 8- or 9-inch round or square cake pan with nonstick spray. Pour chocolate mixture into the pan. Refrigerate until firm.

Cut the confection into pieces. Makes 9 or more pieces, depending on size and shape. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.

*Raw eggs are no longer recommended in uncooked dishes.

**If you can't find superfine sugar, blend regular granulated sugar in a blender or food processor for about 20 seconds.

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