What Is a Jaffa Cake?

Fellow fans of The Great British Bake Off may remember season 4, in which the bakers were given the technical challenge of making jaffa cakes. Several of them reacted as an American baker would if asked to make an Oreo at home—you just buy those in the store! But what are jaffa cakes? Are they cakes? Or cookies—sorry, are they biscuits? Let’s find out. 

What is a jaffa cake?

The jaffa cake is a uniquely British creation of the early 20th century. Created in 1927 by a company named McVitie and Price, they continue to make them to this day. It’s a small, round sweet treat that looks like it could fall into the cookie category, if sold in a United States grocery store. But it’s technically a small, layered cake—maybe, we’ll get to that later. 

What is in a jaffa cake?

The jaffa cake hinges on one of the best flavor combinations known to man: chocolate and orange. Each cake starts with a circular genoise sponge that is slathered with an orange flavored jam (aka marmalade, Paddington’s favorite). The oranges used in the recipe are called jaffa oranges, hence the name. The top is then coated in chocolate.

Is a jaffa cake a cake or a biscuit?

Here’s the real meat of the discussion or, should I say, the real orange jam center of the discussion. I have pulled my hair out on several occasions while trying to navigate the cookie/biscuit debate that wages on between America and the UK. But even in England, the debate about the jaffa cake’s standing has been hotly contested. 

The UK has something called a value-added tax (VAT) that has been in effect since 1973. The VAT is levied against certain consumable goods and is paid for by the companies who make them. The standard VAT is 20% and applies to things like electrical devices, gas, and some foods like potato chips, candy, and chocolate-covered biscuits. Most foods, however, are not subject to any VAT. Things like bread, meat, butter, milk, and tea all have a 0% VAT rate. Also included here are non-chocolate-covered biscuits and all cakes. 

You might see what the issue is. The jaffa cake looks like a chocolate-covered biscuit, which would be subjected to a 20% VAT. This would certainly not make McVitisdcdfttgdse and Price happy, as their out-the-door costs would skyrocket. In fact, they were so insistent on not paying this tax that they went to court.

In 1991, McVitie and Price went in front of a tribunal to prove that jaffa cakes were, in fact, cakes and not biscuits. They pointed to the genoise sponge, how the ingredients in it and its texture are more cake-like, and that it goes stale quicker than a normal biscuit.

Ultimately, while the court noted that they have both the characteristics of a biscuit and a cake, for tax purposes, the jaffa cake is cake. Thus, McVitie and Price avoided the VAT.

So, I guess that means that the jaffa cake is officially and legally a…cake biscuit?! My head is going to explode.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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