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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Let us seriously reflect of what a pudding is composed.  It is composed of flour that once waved in the golden grain, and drank the dews of the morning; of milk pressed from the swelling udder by the gentle hand of the beauteous milkmaid, whose beauty and innocence might have recommended a worse draught; who, while she stroked the udder, indulged no ambitious thoughts of wandering in palaces, formed no plans for the destruction of her fellow-creatures:  milk, which is drawn from the cow, that useful animal, that eats the grass from the field, and supplies us with that which made the greatest part of the food of mankind in the age which the poets have agreed to call golden.  It is made with an egg, that miracle of nature, which the theoretical Burnet has compared to creation.  An egg contains water within the beautiful smooth surface; and an unformed mass, by the incubation of the parent, becomes a regular animal, furnished with bones and sinews and covered with feathers.  Let us consider; can there be more wanting, more may be found.  It contains salt, which keeps the sea from putrefaction:  salt, which is made the image of intellectual excellence, contributes to the formation of a pudding.

Dr Johnson's rhapsody on puddings reminds one of the restaurant menus that extol the virtues of dew-fresh morning-gathered mushrooms, but this great man was expressing a proper pride in that unique institution -- the pudding.  It is now difficult to describe what we mean by a pudding, for today's language is sloppy and inexact.  'Dessert' is an inept refinement, for the word applies only to fresh fruit, nuts and sweetmeats offered to end a grand dinner.  'Sweet' is a niminy-piminy shortening of the sweet course that now ends a meal, but does not apply to the whole magnificent range of puddings, and seems to indicate something rather small and nasty that forms the anticlimax of a meal.  The workmanlike schoolboy slang of 'afters' or 'seconds' more nearly describes the dish we have in mind, but gives no hint of its glory...[t]he English are seldom complimented for their savoury dishes, with the possible exception of roasts, but nobody can fault a true English pudding.

-- Mary Norwak, English Puddings Sweet and Savory (Grub Street, London, 1996 edition)

The weather gods were on England's side yesterday:  after four straight days of sunny, nearly 80-degree weather, sun-saturated days that found me in a cubicle every damn day, Saturday dawned chilly and rainy.  Lest you think that I am making another cheap, tired old joke about English weather, I promise that I am not.  I have spent the week in a state of semi-dread that Saturday would be a glorious day to go play in the fresh air, but I would be unable to enjoy it, having already committed myself in service to a pudding.  Not that I am complaining about the pudding or the commitment.  The latter is the brainchild of the brilliant and beautiful Sam at Becks & Posh; she and her partner in roundup-gathering, the thoughtful, erudite and pulchritudinous Monkey Gland at Jam Faced have invited the food-obsessed to participate in What's for Pud?, a celebration of English puddings in honor of Christendom's most famous dragonslayer.   I knew exactly the pudding I wanted to make, a pudding that has been on my radar for nearly 20 years.  I also knew that this particular pudding would keep me in the house for the better part of a day, and that no matter how much we might like the finished pud, or how industrious I would feel putting it together, I would still feel guilty for staying inside on a nice day, running the stove for four hours.  When I woke up and heard rain pebbling against our bedroom window, I knew I could go ahead and butter my pudding basin with a clear conscience.

It might seem counterintuitive, if not downright depressing, to devote half a day to a pudding you first read about in an essay entitled "Kitchen Horrors," but that's exactly what I did.  Longtime PTMYB readers will remember that I am a devoted fan of the late Laurie Colwin, and that her first collection of food essays, Home Cooking, was one of the first books I bought after I graduated from college and began to cook for myself.  "Kitchen Horrors" is one of the essays collected in Home Cooking, and is proof positive that today's disaster in the kitchen is tomorrow's rich prose fodder for your friends and readers.  Included among the tales of overbaked, overstuffed fish and flaming spinach pies is Ms. Colwin's account of making Sussex Pond Pudding (which she calls Suffolk Pond Pudding) for an Easter dinner to which she is invited:

Suffolk Pond Pudding, although something of a curiosity, sounded perfectly splendid.  First, you line a pudding basin with suet crust.  Then you cut butter mixed with sugar into small pieces.  Next you take an entire lemon and prick it all over with a fork.  Then you stick the lemon on top of the butter and sugar, surround it with more butter and sugar, stick a pastry lid on the top, tie it up in a pudding cloth and steam in a kettle for four hours.  It never occurred to me that nobody might want to eat it.

I followed every step carefully.  My suet crust was masterful.  When unwrapped from its cloth, the crust was a beautiful, deep honey color.  I turned it out onto an ornamental plate...The pudding was brought to the table.  My host and hostess, my future husband and a woman guest looked at it suspiciously.  I cut the pudding.  As Jane Grigson had promised, out ran a lemon-scented buttery toffee.  I sliced up the lemon, which was soft and buttery too.  Each person was to get some crust, a slice of lemon and some sauce.

What a hit!, I thought.  Exactly the sort of thing I adored.  I looked around me happily, and my happiness turned to ash.

My host said:  "This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat."

"I'm sure it's wonderful," said my hostess.  "I mean, in England."

The woman guest said:  "This is awful."

My future husband remained silent, not a good sign.  I had promised him a swell dessert and here was this weird, inedible sludge from outer space.  The others ate ice cream.  I ate almost the entire pudding myself.

This would not seem the most enthusiastic of endorsements of a pudding, and yet I could not help but share Ms. Colwin's opinion:  a lemony, buttery toffee sauce, encased in a crust so well caramelized that it takes on the color of deep honey?  It sounded like heaven in a teacup to me.  Furthermore, I had read the source from which she had found the recipe -- English Food by Jane Grigson -- and thought the recipe sounded magnificent.  I found this recipe in several other cookbooks, including the aforementioned Mary Norwak book, and the more I read it, the more I wanted to try it.  Thus was it settled:  it was time to make a Sussex Pond pudding of my own.

I was not, however, averse to making a backup plan.  In the event that  Sussex Pond pudding did indeed taste like lemon-flavored bacon fat, I still wanted to have a celebratory pudding to hand.  I returned to English Puddings Sweet and Savory, which is packed with history and lore, to say nothing of wonderful recipes for things like Aunt's Pudding, Sussex Bailiff's Bliss, Sack Posset and Clipping Time Pudding, a rich rice pudding made in Cumberland during sheep shearing season, a time of year which "signalled the selling of fleeces and the comparative prosperity of the farmer for a short time."  Among the pie recipes, I found something so simple and sweet, so much to my liking, that I wouldn't be surprised if I had been born clutching a copy of the recipe in my fat little baby fist:  Cumberland Nickies, a double-crust pie filled with dried currants enriched with sugar and rum.  I have seen richer, more elaborate recipes that include other dried fruit along with the currants, or even diced apples and candied fruit and currants, rather like mince pies, but something about the simplicity of currants, sugar and rum just calls out to me.

First things first, though.  To make a suet-crust pudding, one must have suet.  Off I went to what, as far as I knew, was the only source of suet in town.  I left with practically everything else in the store except suet.   Apparently the U.S. has this pesky import ban on all beef products from the U.K.   I asked the clerk if I could just substitute butter; the shop owner advised me that there is really no substitute for suet in a steamed pudding, and that I might be able to get it from my local butcher.  I left with bags of Cornish pasties and shepherd's pies and treacle and Bourbon biscuits, silently giving thanks that I had remembered to buy currants.

But I would not be daunted.  I would try my luck at the butcher shop.  I left the house early, walked the three blocks to the butcher shop in the cool drizzly air, and learned an important new rule:  Do not embark on a quest for suet on the day before Greek Orthodox Easter.  You will find yourself in a line of about 35 people, at least 12 of whom are in terrible moods because they don't know which line is the correct line.  Assuming that you can stick around to wait until you are at the front of the line, you will have to ask your silly question about suet on a day when the staff are overworked, overtired and not in the mood for whimsy.   I beat a hasty retreat after about six minutes.

The outlook for Sussex Pond pudding did not look promising, but I didn't want to give up yet.  Reading Mary Norwak's introduction to her chapter on steamed and boiled puddings, I learned that pudding crusts could be made "by rubbing in or creaming the fat, where butter or other fat is substituted for suet."  This gave me the first hint that while butter could not exactly duplicate suet, it just might work.  I set to work.  Since I didn't have self-raising flour on hand, I made my own, with 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt for approximately 2 cups of flour.  I took a stick of butter from the freezer and grated it into the dough, then quickly mixed in a blend of milk and water.  The resulting dough was soft yet dry to the touch, and tasted like biscuit dough (that would be the American definition of biscuit, not the British one).  I knew at that moment that I would not have a pudding that tasted like lemon-flavored bacon fat.  The only question on my mind was whether a butter crust would have the stability and structural integrity to withstand 3 1/2 hours of steaming.

Dear friends, it does, it does.  It has structural integrity, and a beautiful deep-honey-colored crust, and a lemony toffee, and when you breach the crust, a pond of sauce does indeed run out.  It is much less sweet, much more tart, than I had anticipated, thanks to the presence of all that lemon.  On the other hand, it is rich, a lot of richness in a small concentrated place, thanks to the presence of all that butter.  I would not make a steady diet of it, but I would eat it with pleasure if someone brought it to my Easter dinner -- and if everyone else decides that it's too weird or scary for them, I will join the cook in eating the whole thing.

Of course, even with over half the pudding left, I will still be making Cumberland Nickies later today.  How can I not?  It's a pie filled with currants, sugar and rum.  It calls out to me.  smile

Sussex_pond_002_1

Sussex Pond Pudding for Americans and Others With No Access to Suet

(serves 6-8)

225g (8 oz, approx. 2 cups, sifted into cup) pastry or all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

100g (4 oz, 1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen

75ml milk mixed with 75ml water

100g (4 oz, 1 stick) unsalted butter, cool and pliable but not too soft

100g (4 oz) demarara sugar

1 large lemon, preferably thin-skinned

In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.  Grate the frozen butter into the dry ingredients and mix well.  Add the liquids and mix to a soft dough. 

Roll the dough to an approximate 10" circle.  Cut 1/4 of the dough off in a wedge; butter a 3-cup pudding mold well and line the mold with the remaining 3/4 of the dough.  Cut half the remaining butter into small pieces, put it into the crust and shake half the sugar over it.  Prick the lemon all over with a toothpick or fork and set it on top of the butter and sugar.  Cut up the rest of the butter, scatter it over the lemon, and add the rest of the sugar.  Top with the pastry lid and pinch tightly to join. 

Butter a piece of parchment paper and cover the top of the pudding with it.  Wrap a piece of aluminum foil over the parchment and tie everything tightly with a length of kitchen twine. Place the pudding on a trivet in a Dutch oven or stockpot, add boiling water to come halfway up the pudding basin, cover and steam for 3 1/2 hours.  (You will probably need to add more water as the water in the pot evaporates; check the water level about once every 1/2 hour.)  When the pudding is done, turn it out onto a deep dish. Serve with a slice of crust, a piece of lemon and plenty of sauce with every serving.  Whipped cream would be nice with this.

Cumberland Nickies

(serves 10-12)

Pie pastry to fit a 9" pie plate (double crust)

16 oz. (454g) dried currants

6 oz. (150g) dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum

egg wash for pie crust (I like one whole egg with a little water beaten in)

Preheat oven to 400F degrees (Gas Mark 6).  Roll out the bottom crust and fit it to the pie plate.  In a medium bowl, mix the currants and sugar and sprinkle with the rum. Spread the currants onto the pie shell, roll out the top crust and press it over the currants; join the top and bottom crusts together well, but do not flute the edge.  Brush with the egg wash, then take a sharp knife and make light cuts across the top surface.  (Or rather, "nick" it.)  Bake for 30 minutes.  Serve hot or cold.

Tagged with: and

Posted by Bakerina at 02:35 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (3) Comments

While I love your dedication, your willingness to take risk, your respect for tradition and your beautiful telling of the tale, I can’t help but conclude that the British have once again cemented their place in food history as the very worst cooks in the world—inefficient, no eye for color or presentation, and very little creativity and respect for the ingredients.

With the very same ingredients and just 15 minutes work, including prep, baking and clean-up, a person could whip up a nice fresh batch of American-style biscuits (esp. if only suet was available), leaving the fresh lemon to squeeze into a nice glass of gin and the sugar to stir into after-dinner coffee.

Or with a bit more flour and baking a perfectly luscious lemon cake for that Easter dessert.

[And an aside, wasn’t shortening invented to solve the dead-animal problem of suet?]

I will try to keep an open mind for your pud if you want to try to convert me in person someday when I visit NY, but that said, I find it no wonder that English puddings nearly died crossing the Atlantic and that they never made it across the American plains to the Left Coast.

mouse on 04/23/06 at 11:33 AM  

I left out the paragraph extolling the virtues of your amazing Shaker Lemon Pie, which is also a wonder of nature created from nearly the same list of ingredients.  Today I search for Meyers lemons of my own.

mouse on 04/23/06 at 11:37 AM  

Good morning, everyone, and Happy St. George’s Day.  smile Before I crack my knuckles and start arguing engaging in spirited conversation with ‘mouse, allow me to answer the question of the hour:  the lemon used was a conventional, fresh-from-Florida thin-skinned lemon, not a Meyer.  I love a Meyer lemon like nobody’s business, but I wouldn’t use it in this pudding.  I think you need that almost-aggressive tartness to counteract the richness of the butter and the stodginess of the crust.  The flavor subtleties of the Meyer lemon would be lost in this, I think.

To address the observations of my darling ‘mouse—and ‘mouse, you really are my darling, even when I’m feeling stroppy wink—it’s true that steamed puddings are not everybody’s cup of tea, and even those who like them tend to blanch at the idea of running the stovetop for three or so hours.  (The food writer Barbara Kafka has written microwave-usable recipes for traditional steamed puddings, in which the hours of steaming are cut down to minutes, but I’m not particularly interested in buying a microwave just so that I can have 15-minute sticky toffee pudding.) But ‘mouse, even if I were to agree with your opinion of this particular pud, I would still find it more than a little shortsighted to dun the entire repertoire of English puddings on the basis of this one dessert.  Steamed puddings are a fixture of English cookery in part because nearly all cooking (except in great houses and estates with working bread ovens) had to be done over an open fire, and the fat/flour/fruit-and-or-meat combination could easily be slipped into a pot of boiling water or broth.  But not all puddings were restricted to the cauldron, or the steamer; there were also griddle puddings cooked on a bakestone, as well as cream-based and fruit-jelly-based dishes.  Mary Norwak makes an elegant case for the development of subtler, gentler cookery among the emerging middle class in the form of yeoman farmers, who were not tied to the backbreaking farm work that was the provenance of poor manor workers; yeomen were the bridge between the laboring class and the lords of the manor, and one result of this relative mobility was, to quote Mrs. Norwak, “access to flowers, soft fruit, cream and eggs, herbs and spices, and the delicate flower-scented waters and essences,” which “[gave] subtlety to hearty country dishes.”

I am being much too reductive on a topic that really deserves a more in-depth approach than a mere comment field can provide.  smile The point of all this verbiage is just to remind you, gently, that we can’t define the realm of English cookery, or even English puddings, by Sussex Pond pudding alone.  The English have also given us the lovely fruit/wine/cream mixture known as syllabub; they have given us fruit crumble and almond cream and cheesecake, and they are unparalleled in their skill at teasing beautiful desserts out of our old friend the damson.  They may not have invented the egg-based custard (I believe the real origination point for custard lies in Spain, but I need more research before I go shooting my mouth off), but they do appear to have some of the earliest-published sources for the dish we now know as creme brulee.  In short, it’s a big world of pudding out there, and it’s a bit silly to judge the whole by a single example.  Think of it this way:  would you judge all Italian cuisine by testa (a/k/a head cheese), or all Japanese food by natto?  Supposing some sweet young English whoosit started talking smack about how American food is the worst in the world because she saw this recipe that called for stale Krispy Kreme doughnuts, condensed milk and fruit cocktail—wouldn’t you feel at least a little compelled to set the record straight?  wink

Bakerina on 04/23/06 at 01:31 PM  
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