World of mouth: the proof is in the pudding

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world; this week find out why the English are crazy for this traditional dessert.

Pudding 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pudding 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
“If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding!” So says Pink Floyd and this is a serious threat indeed, because if there was one thing that the people in the British novels I read as a child seemed to eat a lot of, it was pudding. I pictured their supermarket aisles lined with boxes of instant Jell-o in every conceivable flavor- chocolate, butterscotch, tapioca, vanilla, hasty, figgy, plum and so on. Hadn't they ever heard of ice cream or donuts or Twinkies for heaven's sake? Didn't the little English children (and naturally at this point I would picture a combination of Oliver Twist and a motley group of Pink Floyd kids bellowing “We don't need no education”) ever long for anything different than pudding? They may not need "no education" but what about a bit of variety in their desserts? Much later I discovered that for the English, pudding is a sort of all-purpose word for dessert.
Pudding can be as simple as a bowl of ice cream or a tangerine, but there are also hundreds of puddings that are very specific to English cuisine. During the Medieval period, these puddings usually contained meat, but over time, they came to include mostly sweet ingredients such as sugar, flour, fruits and nuts. Originally puddings were made by combining various ingredients and then boiling them in special pudding bags. The bags used to be made of animal intestines but in the early 1600s, people began using cloth bags, often lining the bags with suet (animal fat) and flour before filling them. These days puddings can be boiled, steamed or baked, often in special pudding basins.
I few weeks ago I went to England for the first time and had a chance to see the prominence of the pudding for myself. On pub menus I saw sticky toffee pudding, bread and butter pudding and treacle (molasses) sponge pudding. I saw convenience store take-away puddings and puddings in cans. I bought a second-hand book about puddings which is full of recipes with exotic names like “Whim Wham,” “Bedfordshire Clanger,” “Fine Orange Flummery,” “Boodles Orange Food” and “Raspberry Syllabub Trifle.” The crowning moment was when my friend Sophy prepared something called “Queen of Puddings” for me. Custardy bread crumbs and hot strawberry jam covered with toasted meringue peaks makes a very royal pudding indeed!
If there’s any one time of year that puddings hold the place of honor at the table, it is during the holiday season. Christmas pudding recipes are often handed down through families for generations and they usually include ingredients such dried fruits, spices, nuts and suet. Here is an excerpt from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in which he describes the presentation of the holiday meal pudding

"Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastry cook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered -- flushed, but smiling proudly -- with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
What many don’t know is that Mrs. Crachit’s pudding had probably been hanging (quite literally) around the house for weeks, or even months. Traditionally Christmas puddings were steamed in pudding bags (at least 6 weeks before the big day) and then hung to dry which is said to enhance the flavors. Those who make their puddings in basins can just cover them well and keep them in a cool, dry, dark place until they are ready to be eaten (at which point they should be boiled for another couple of hours beforehand). As an American, this all strikes me as rather odd but apparently the ingredients keep very well and there are even people who make their annual pudding as much as a year in advance. That being said, one recipe I saw recommends that you should check your pudding weekly for mold (in which case you should move it to a dryer spot).
Unless you already have a pudding sitting in the bottom of a closet (or hanging out on the clothes line), it's too late for this year. Luckily, most puddings don’t require nearly this much preparation. For a delicious English pudding that takes less than an hour to prepare, try this recipe for my friend Sophy’s Queen of Puddings!
Queen of Puddings
-3 oz. fresh white bread crumbs (they do not need to be dried out)
-3 egg whites and 3 egg yolks
-1 pint of whole milk
-1 cup sugar
-1 oz. butter
-Grated rind of half a lemon
-3 tablespoons of jam (either raspberry or strawberry)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).
2. Butter a 9” x 9” ovenproof dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs over the bottom.
3. Beat the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar.
4. Put the milk, butter and grated lemon rind in a saucepan and bring slowly to a boil.
5. Cool for a few minutes and then pour slowly into the egg yolks, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth.
6. Pour the mixture over the bread crumbs and leave to soak for 15 minutes.7. Put the dish in a roasting tin that has been half-filled with hot water and bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly set.
8. Warm up the jam (in a sauce pan or in the microwave) and spread it over the custard.
9. Whisk the egg whites until they begin to form soft peaks. Add the remaining sugar and continue whisking until the whites are stiff and glossy.
10. Pile the meringue on top of the jam, sprinkle with extra sugar and bake for another 15-20 minutes (until meringue is crisp and lightly browned).
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