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Rock cakes

"They’re the kind of easy cake you can rustle up with not much more than a bag of old flour and some sad-looking currants lurking at the back of the cupboard: no fancy techniques, no tins, no fuss ... no art." Ruby Tandoh

No art - well yes I suppose but look the best food stylists can make even ordinary 'beige' food look good. The version above is from the Australian Women's Weekly and it manages to make them look like something you could eat at an afternoon tea at the Windsor Hotel, or buy in some posh pastry shop. You just need some pretty paper, maybe a dusting of icing sugar - the easiest tarting up trick in the book - and an exclusive looking carrier bag.

But rock cakes - curiously absent from cookbooks that you might expect to include a recipe - Jane Grigson's English food, my Pooh Cookbook, or from avowedly English cooks such as Jamie, The Hairy Bikers and Nigella are also generally curiously absent in the nostalgia world of home cooking, wherein traditional recipes are explored and 'improve' upon. Which is odd because in this day of involving children in cooking you would think you would start with something so easy. I mean I'm pretty sure it was one of the first things I made. Mix a few things in a bowl, plop them on a baking tray and hey presto - something delicious that a toddler could make. Maybe we expect our children to do more sophisticated things these days, like gnocchi and stir fries. Maybe we don't like mess.

"I have a soft spot for rock cakes, partly because they were one of my first successes. Such sweet things can be made in minutes, providing the butter is at room temperature and will be out of the oven in a quarter of an hour and long before Mum's out of bed. I suggest such old-fashioned and simple recipes partly because for most very young cooks, the speed at which your handiwork is ready for consumption comes second only to how much mess you can make." Nigel Slater

And yet I can't find a Nigel Slater recipe for them. Mum being out of bed, by the way, was because he was writing about children cooking for mum on Mother's Day. Culminating in this simple thought:

"Can there be any gift so well received as that of some food a child has made?" Nigel Slater

So true - which is perhaps why my entire family enjoys our Sunday Zoom cooking classes so much.

You would also think that modern cooks have messed with them endlessly but again, although I did find a few variations there were not that many and they were also not that radical. The most radical was this recipe from Ruby Tandoh for Carrot rock cakes which is the only savoury version I have found. I also found this rhapsodic endorsement (and a picture of them) on a website called The Giggly Fig.

"On the outside, they may not look like perfection: irregular, a little bit bumpy, a raisin jutting out here and the skin of a date peeking out there, an odd patch of unmixed cinnamon rippling through the centre. Full of ‘imperfections.’ But oh on the inside, boy are they beautiful. An interior as soft as you like: a crumb tender enough to be deliciously moist but just light and spongey enough to be wonderfully moreish and quickly gobbled up from the plate in instants, leaving everyone sadly gazing at the empty, white plate on the coffee table – “is there no more?” They’re laced with warming spices of cinnamon and ginger bringing us cosy moments in the autumn and beckoning to Winter and calling for Her gingerbread-scented candles and Christmas time." The Giggly Fig

For rock cakes, or rock buns as they are called in some places - the north I think - are called rock cakes, not because they are hard - like those made by Hagrid in Harry Potter, but because they look knobbly like a rock. Although who gave them this name we shall never know. Indeed where the rock cake first came to light is also unknown - or unreported anyway. I have looked and not found. And that knobbly surface is what makes them so appealing to the very average cook and to children - you don't have to get an immaculately smooth icing, or a perfectly round macaron.

"A smooth surface would never be able to give you those delicious crispy bits that I enjoy cheekily picking off in secret, when no one’s looking." The Giggly Fig

I also don't think there is a 'traditional' recipe for people to argue about. They are very similar to scones, but not quite - not just because of the rough appearance. Scones don't have eggs in them and these do. Only one though. They are a basic treat made from basic, and frugal ingredients and as such were promoted during WW2 and afterwards - all the way through the rationing years. I actually am writing about them because they were mentioned in our current book group book The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. Wonderful book by the way. One of the characters cooks for the family of Dr. James Murray the editor-in-chief of the first Oxford English Dictionary - the topic - well one of them - of the book, and every now and then the book mentions something traditional, and often despised that she is preparing. The rock cakes were one example early in the book when the heroine was a small child and helped to make some. So yes - child food which is why it was such a surprise not to find them in my Pooh Cookbook - which is aimed at children.

The simplicity of a rock cake, that curious hybrid of a scone and a butter cake, is all the better when made with generosity rather than stern adherence to tradition." Dan Lepard

Delia Smith, when she was revising her book Delia's Cakes was not going to include them:

"They were not going to be included in this edition – until, that is, we made some. And unbelievably they went down a storm. Perhaps we’ve got so used to bland shop-bought stuff that even something as simple as this tastes so very good." Delia Smith - Delia's Cakes 2nd ed.

And here they are Good old rock cakes.

As I said I found that most of the British chefs that you might think would have a recipe did not, but I did find a few - tradition from Mary Berry; one traditional and two slight variations from Dan Lepard - A simple rock cake and Gingerbread rock cakes (no picture of the gingerbread ones); and Rocky road rock cakes and two more slight variations from Ruby Tandoh - Apple spice cakes and Lemon-glazed gingerbread rock cakes

Dan Lepard seems to be the modern British baking guru so I'll give him the last word:

"it optimises English kitchen baking at its purist and most honest form. Made with decent ingredients, a rock cake can rival the best scone or sponge; yet make it meanly, and it tastes like a dull waste of time. Rock cake is also a good basis for your imagination, because it can hold rather complex and intense ingredients well." Dan Lepard


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