Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

A Pudding’s Progress

Posted By on January 22, 2009

Yummy white food

Yummy white (ish) food

1.19.09 San Luis Obispo, CA
The very first meal I ate in England was all white: Poached chicken with white sauce (béchamel), rice, and cauliflower-cheese, a little-known-in-America dish that might just be good with a lamb chop and green salad. “Very nice,” I said to my proud hostess, who wasn’t even a grandmother but rather a sweet English girl of exactly my own age.

It was a portent of things to come. The year was 1982 and, unbeknownst to me then, I was shortly to commence ten years living either in, or greatly influenced by, England (the final three were spent in a colony of expat Brits near Marbella in Southern Spain). Lucky enough to attend professional cooking school in Surrey for most of 1985, I was dismayed when the first week’s coursework included both steak-and-kidney pudding (with suet crust) and lemon meringue pie. I did consider quitting right then, but the headmistress Beryl insisted we’d soon move on to more colorful dishes, like aspic.

Tate and Lyle's: Perfect in Puddings!

Tate and Lyle's: Perfect in Puddings!

Cut quickly to today, when for some time England has boasted perhaps the most exciting restaurant scene in the world, vieing with Sydney, New York, and San Francisco. My stodgy food memories are relics of the past: bland, overcooked pork chewed in chintz-heavy formal dining rooms, scones heavier than a hockey puck, beans on toast, and Spag Bol (this is the fond nickname given to that backbone of youthful British home cooking in the last century, spaghetti Bolognese).
Now, chefs like (my hero) Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Simon Hopkinson, Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall, Fergus Henderson, and Sophie Grigson show what can be done with blemishless, locally-farmed foods carefully coddled with love and a puckish sense of humor. (Heston Blumenthal is another animal and his food, though certainly thought-provoking, doesn’t make me lick my lips in anticipation of tucking in.) Now that the exchange rate is beginning to be human again, I’d love to schedule a trip to London to catch up with all of them (after Italy, of course).
But in all of those years, this confirmed non-dessert person loved one English dish above all and to distraction: Steamed Treacle Sponge Pudding. This is not a sweet that has made it across the pond, like Spotted Dick and its second cousin, Sticky Toffee Pudding. For one thing it simply can not be made without golden syrup (Tate & Lyle’s), which is not available in the US except via amazon or Karo just won’t cut it. So us Yanks that want to make this pud will have to make an effort and plan ahead.
C pours the liquid love

C pours the liquid love

In my domestic partnership, C makes the dessert. (This is not to say that I don’t provide the recipe, do the shopping, measure out the ingredients, and assemble the necessary equipment on the counter. But this convoluted process still makes me feel like I do not have to make dessert. Sometimes, this can backfire, as when he accidentally added four cups of salt to about $200 worth of summer berries destined for a crumble. (I’d helpfully made, and frozen, the crumble topping a week before.) “It was a very pretty canister,” he offered, in defense.) C has two desserts: Clafouti (though this one has virtually endless permutations), and Salted Caramel Cheesecake. Back in the fall, I decided to add a third dessert to his repertoire, and set about trying to find a recipe for the angelic Steamed Treacle Sponge Pudding of my memories. I scoured the internet, came up with a likely recipe (I can’t remember where this first one came from—probably a bad sign right there), and scored some golden syrup (at Fairway, In New York). The pudding was a flop. No ethereal fluffiness soaked with fragrant nectar and pleasingly cloying sweetness was this heavy, dense, dry dish. I resolved to find the answer, but just about then it was time to drive off on the annual hegira, so I packed the requisite brown pudding basin and a small pile of possible recipes, and we resolved to try the pudding again when we settled down in California.
As soon as we arrived, I ordered more golden syrup, and then a few days ago called my friend Jane in London for advice. A few hours later she called back: Go with Delia Smith’s version, she advised decidedly. (Jane herself had not made the pudding in decades, she said, because she could imagine it migrating in its entirety straight to her hips.) Delia has been respected as the doyenne of the tasty aspects of traditional English cooking for over a generation, so in spite of rather odd presence of baking powder, I figured we’d go with her version. (Traditionally, the sponge for a sponge pudding is made from an
I know, let's add MORE

I know, let's add MORE

authentic genoise, ie butter is beaten with sugar until pale and fluffy, then eggs are folded in carefully one at a time; thus, the only lift is provided by the raising action of the eggs. Baking powder is an easier way to add air to a cake mixture, certainly.) I decided to dispense with the treacle: although it’s in the title, there’s only 1 tablespoon and we can live without it. Better, I thought, for a note of Americana in this blissful inaugural week, to substitute a tablespoon of Vermont maple syrup.
I tweaked the recipe in a few other places, self-raising flour being rather hard to come by in the USA and not worth ordering. Then, six ounces of butter were softened outside in the sun, loaded up the marble counter with everything C would need, and turned my attention to the pig portion of the menu. After buttering the bowl, beating the mixture, and covering the pudding basin with a pleated layer of both foil and parchment (my help was sought for this operation), C placed the basin inside a larger pan of simmering water and let it steam for two hours. During this time, we turned our considerable enthusiasm to the pig. Later, to serve, he drizzled the unmolded, crusty-topped pudding with more of the mellifluous syrup (plus just a touch of Cointreau, he whispered to me later, during the group swoon). What a guy.
This pudding was everything I had dreamed of. It pleased in every way that the first attempted pudding had disappointed. Baking powder or not, the structure was light and airy yet moist, with hundreds of little golden holes squishy with the sweet nectar of syrup and butterfat, the rich cake gently giving to fork and tooth. Each bite was ethereally insubstantial, yet the complexity of flavors evoked a sip of Chateau d’Yquem (a bottle of which awaits a spring confluence of good friends back in Athens). To nibble this voluptuous pudding and then sip a little of the liquid honey of ‘Yquem: now that would be something worth an inch or two on my hips. I do not state this lightly.
When we are happy, Stella is happy

When we are happy, Stella is happy

Note: This isn’t really a recipe blog, but if a few readers so request, I’d be happy to post the adapted recipe here.
Photographs courtesy of Melinda Handy and Melissa Davison.


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