The Proof’s in the Eating: Traditional British Puddings

The Proof’s in the Eating: Traditional British Puddings

Pop quiz! If you ordered a ‘pudding’ in a British pub, what would you expect to receive? 

a) A set custard flavored with vanilla
b) A whole caramelized lemon encased in pastry
c) A warm, crumbly cake with currants, pieces of apple, and brandy sauce
d) An eggy, nutmeg-scented custard with slices of buttered bread peeking out of the top

Answers locked in? Fear not – unless you picked A, literally all of these qualify as puddings in Britain. In North America, with parts of Canada being an exception, the word ‘pudding’ conjures up a milky, vanilla-flavored, slightly gelatinous substance thickened with cornstarch or eggs. It forms the base to many a tried-and-tested family banana pudding recipe, not to mention the perfect childhood snack: a snap-apart pudding cup, best eaten with a minuscule plastic spoon.  

Ask a passerby in the UK, however, and they’ll tell you that pudding means dessert at large. Anything goes, from Eton Mess to apple crumble. As we celebrate foods of the UK this month, our dessert course consists of a sticky-toffee-pudding-inspired bread topped with cream cheese frosting and a caramel drizzle. Unapologetically decadent, this bake drove us to explore other traditional British puddings of the boiled, steamed and baked varieties. Many of these, such as sticky toffee pudding, are fruited sponges served with alcoholic sauces or custard, while others, such as a Scottish clootie, are made of moistened breadcrumbs with add-ins like butter, raisins, chocolate, and nuts. These are placed in floured cloths, or in cloth-covered ceramic pudding basins, and boiled for hours to achieve an iconic domed shape and set interior.

From Meats to Sweets

While the word ‘pudding’ is a current catch-all for sweet endings, it has a long history in reference to savory preparations. In fact, the word derives from the Latin ‘botellus’, referring to intestines or the blood sausage stuffed into them. By way of Middle English and Old French, the word was permuted into boudin (still in use), poding, and now pudding. In the Victorian period, it would have been normal to enjoy a rabbit or pigeon pudding before a rice pudding.

The transition from savory to sweet can be traced through a pudding element that is still commonplace – a suet crust, or pastry made with the shelf-stable fat taken from around a cow’s kidneys. Many British bakes, and hand-raised pies in particular, integrate suet in the dough. The quaintly named Sussex Pond is a centuries-old lemony pudding that uses a suet-based pastry. It is slowly coming back into fashion, in no small part due to an appearance on The Great British Bake Off and in celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s kitchens. In case you were wondering if option B of the pop quiz was a hoax, this is where we prove ourselves. Sussex Pond involves a suet crust filled with butter, brown sugar, and a whole, thin-skinned, unwaxed lemon, though lemon pieces may also be used. Steamed for hours on end, the contents of the pudding basin caramelize beautifully to produce a self-saucing dessert that is far more than the sum of its parts.   

Similar but Different

As with any long-lived culinary tradition, pudding recipes in the UK vary wildly from home to home and pub to pub. Eve’s pudding, corresponding to option C of the pop quiz above, can refer to a number of different preparations: a boiled Victorian one would have been made of breadcrumbs, milk, brandy, dried fruit, and chopped apples; the modern rendition involves stewing apples with warming spices like cloves and cinnamon before pouring over a light sponge batter and baking. The apples (and, I suppose, the fall of humans from Paradise) are the only unifying factor in this recipe.       


Claims to Fame

Certain foods become legendary for reasons other than their flavor. Spotted dick is one of them. No, we’re not kidding. The name derives from a version – or perversion, some might say – of the word ‘dough’, historically recorded as both ‘dog’ and ‘dick’ in particular English dialects. This is how one arrives at the last course of a meal while giggling uncontrollably at a simple suet-and-raisin pudding. 

Perhaps the most famous of all puddings to have emerged from Britain is the Christmas pudding, that brandy-sozzled juggernaut of dried fruit that is matured for months on end, often lasting all the way till next year’s holiday season due to its high sugar and alcohol content. The inimitable Max Miller at Tasting History has delved into the origins of the dish, as well as what makes a long-lived Christmas pudding good enough to turn Scrooge into Santa. He revealed that, fascinatingly, a plum pudding (or figgy pudding, as demanded in carols) does not generally contain plums, as the word ‘plum’ was historically used to describe a number of other fruits in England.     

Contributions to Pudding

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution created a burgeoning middle class in Britain. Many modern pudding recipes have recognizable precursors in cookbooks by female authors hailing from this time. This is when Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was published, among other notable titles. A commercial venture by a small-time poet, Acton’s book was a runaway success reprinted in 13 editions, and was unique in that it provided cooking times and quantities of ingredients – something we take for granted today, but that was hitherto unheard of in Victorian cookbooks. A tome of over 600 pages, the cookbook compiles recipes from numerous sources alongside Acton’s own creations, and boasts unusual ingredients for Victorian England, such as pineapples and coconut. 

Acton’s vast pudding sections are divided into Boiled (close to 60 recipes) and Baked (numbering near 50), with the former arranged so savories rub shoulders with sweet dishes. A rather wry comment on her life as an author made its way into the recipe titles: an outrageously rich, 5-hour recipe involving macaroons, Jordan almonds, whole pints of cream, seven eggs, a glass of brandy, candied peel and dried cherries is dubbed ‘The Publisher’s Pudding’, while a simple combination of stale, buttered bread, cinnamon, milk and eggs is labelled ‘The Poor Author’s Pudding’. The former is prefaced as such: ‘this pudding can scarcely be made too rich.’ The latter, besides making a humbler grocery list, is incidentally identical to my family’s recipe for bread-and-butter pudding! 

Sticky toffee pudding is one of this dessert enthusiast’s favorite things on the planet – a moist date sponge burnished with toffee sauce has me close to tears when served warm. We hope your sticky toffee rolls for Week 4 of this trip to the UK bring you as much joy. For more insight into the cultures we cook from, join our mailing list. 

Photos by: Edward Howell on Unsplash; Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash; Amanda Lim on Unsplash; Sainsbury’s.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.