Rock cakes have a bad reputation. Apart from their unglamorous name, they were immortalized as solid and indigestible bricks—the epitome of bad British cooking—in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In these stories, the much-loved half-giant Hagrid prepares rock cakes every time Harry and co. come for tea, much to the dismay of his guests. The cakes are depicted as dense, dull and heavy as . . . well, heavy as a rock.
Rock cakes also suffer from their reputation as a ration food. During WWII and afterwards until 1954, Britain labored under the constraints of rationing. Foods such as dairy and sugar were in scarce supply and rock cakes were promoted by the government, not only because they required fewer of these precious commodities than other cakes, but because they were so simple to make that even children could bake them. Like mutton and other wartime edibles, rock cakes have been slow to recover from their associations with hard times, poor quality ingredients, and dull, monotonous meals.
In my opinion, this denigration of the rock cake is utterly unfair. I have been a devoted fan ever since coming across them in a book by the archetypal British cook Mary Berry. Admittedly not the most outwardly alluring delicacy, this plain Jane of cakes has got a sexy soul. The resemblance to a rock is only skin deep and there is nothing better than biting into a warm round straight from the oven: beneath the crisp, golden exterior the center is soft as a buttery cloud, sighing on the tongue, dotted with nuggets of sweet currant and fragrant with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Accompanied by a steaming mug of tea, rock cakes form the perfect sustenance to ward off that sinking, afternoon fatigue.
Besides being lovely in their own right, rock cakes are perfect for unexpected guests or voraciously hungry children. It takes a matter of minutes to whip the ingredients together and pop them in the oven and you will have a plate of little golden cakes on the table in 20 minutes. You can even premix the dry ingredients and store them in a jar. Then simply add the butter, eggs, and milk when you need a quick batch. Finally, the key to sublime rather than stolid cakes is to devour them while still warm. They do not keep well and left more than a few hours will begin to solidify—turning name into nature like a sad, self-fulfilling culinary prophecy.