Joanna Blythman: Enough with the supersized sweets

Cakes and biscuits have ballooned recently in bakery displays and cafés. With growing awareness of sugar's negative health impacts, it's time to downsize.

Large scone filled with jam and cream

Supersized scones in stately homes

In the café of a stately home recently, I must have appeared rather stupid by asking the very pleasant woman behind the counter if they had any scones. She looked at me, surprised, then pointed to a basket of baked rounds that were the size of a side plate and about three inches thick. I hadn’t recognised them as scones, taking them as circular loaves. The ‘deal’ with these supersized scones was that, for £6.99, they came with a tiny pot of jam, and either butter or cream (also small), which was never going to be enough to anoint the vast scone, and a one-cup pot of tea. ‘They’re enough for two people,’ she explained. But what I really wanted was a ‘normal’ scone – much smaller, with the ideal ratio of crust to airy middle, so that it wasn’t just a pile of doughy stodge, and about half the price.

This experience brought home to me that British cakes and baking have been supersized. It’s not just scones that have exploded – biscuits have been reinvented as giant cookies. And think of those meringues with the dimensions of a small cloud. I’m exaggerating, but meringues used to be manageably proportioned, which was wise, given how much sugar they contain.

British bakeries are displaying American-style oversized cake portions  

Eyeing up cake counters these days, it seems to me that all the classic cakes (Victoria sponge, chocolate, carrot, lemon drizzle) have deepened and doubled. They look stunning, of course, but it reminds me of the first time I visited the US, my eyes popping at how everything sweet seemed to be twice as large as back home.

Five carrot cupcakes with cream cheese frosting

Are we catching up with the US, or just catching one of its bad eating habits? It’s a curious phenomenon, given what’s happening in restaurants, where small plates and tapas portions are fashionable. Downsizing dishes works well in restaurants because it keeps the bill down and diners don’t have to plump for one dish – they can hedge their bets and try out a few.

We need to introduce the same logic in the cakes department. It’s crazy that nowadays, when reducing sugar is considered to be the paramount tip for good health after giving up smoking, our plates are heaped with cartoon-sized cakes. Like everyone else, I love a good scone or cake, but a few mouthfuls are really enough to satisfy the urge. I appreciate that visual abundance and generosity sells baking, but do any of us really need to chomp through a slice that would easily serve two? Either we end up overeating, or we’re defeated because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.

It's time to downsize our cake slices

Small is beautiful in my recipe book. As someone who agonises over which confection to go for, I’d welcome being able to taste two or three small but excellent ones. If we’re honest, lots of sponge-type cakes are pretty dull after a few bites. Even the finest brownie is sickeningly rich if you eat too much.

As all bakers know, ingredients these days are expensive. Fruit, chocolate and the like all rack-up big bills. Substituting lower-grade ingredients isn’t the answer, but reducing size could be the new way to cut expense without sacrificing quality, and restore a civilised and healthy sense of proportion to our bakery selections.

Enjoyed this? Read more articles by Joanna Blythman...

Stand up for British seasonal fruit and veg
Stop giving children choices at mealtimes
Will the coffee bubble ever burst?

Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.

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