Orange pudding is the new black pudding
Last week I read this piece in The Telegraph discussing the decreased interest in hot puddings over the last year and I found myself thinking that was odd, because the same week the exact same newspaper had devoted enormous amounts of column inches and headlines in the news section to a popular TV show that involved baking hot puddings. Perhaps it is not the case that people have lost interest in hot puddings, but more that tastes for what makes a good hot pudding have shifted (just as they had continuously long before The Telegraph‘s imagined utopian Rice Pudding Age).
The opening of The Telegraph article seems to suggest that the decline in pudding popularity is somehow representative or symptomatic of a general sense of decline in British traditions and values (because it’s The Telegraph, so of course it does). However, the article then goes on to demonstrate that ideals of hot pudding have never been set, but have changed and developed over the years (although the highlighting of the developments of Birds Custard and Angel Delight points to the kind of school-dinners-ishness that puts people off the idea of old fashioned pudding). So the puddings we think of as traditional were themselves once novel compared to what came before. In fact, has there not been merely a progression of pudding taste with elements of continuity and others of change rather than an all out decline?
Just what actually constitutes a pudding is both a surprisingly complex question and cuts to the heart of the changing history of puddings. Firstly, then, let’s look at the study that inspired the article in The Telegraph. It came from The Grocer and does not actually use the term “pudding” in its title, rather styling the research “The Hot Desserts Category Report“.
The report’s main findings were summarised as: “The overall value of the market has cooled by 7% this year and the decline was even steeper for sponge pudding, pies and tarts, rice pudding, souffles and bread and butter pudding.” The examples cited are all “puddings” by one definition of the word or another, despite the research being loathe to use the word pudding overall many of the individual puddings (such as rice pudding or bread and butter pudding) even have the word in their name. But “pudding” means different things to different people, making it conceptually tricky to pin down as an overall category.
A couple of other things are worth noting here in response to a knee jerk “this report means people don’t eat puddings any more” reaction. First that the report only covers the purchase of ready made desserts and does not pick up on the idea that there has been a rise in home baking in the last few years, something that could contribute to less purchase of ready made desserts. Equally the results of just the 2014 report in no sense give enough of a statistical data set to suggest a general long term decline (indeed the same report points out that traditional dessert sales were up 1.6% the previous year).
Even the fairly common modern usage of “pudding” to mean any sweet served after dinner is not entirely satisfactory, after all when Rabbie Burns sang praises To A Haggis as “great chiefain o’ the pudding-race” he wasn’t imagining having it for dessert. In fact, while we might not think of a haggis as much as a pudding as some of the things listed in the Grocer survey, it is far closer to the earliest historical “puddings” than any of them.
The word has its origins in French (or Latin if you go far enough back). The French boudin essentially means “sausage”, it’s still used in both French and Francophonic communities from Canada to Louisiana to mean the sort of blood and fat sausages that we would call black pudding and white pudding. The earliest sweet puddings followed this same pattern: filling inside sausage casing.
This picture comes from food historian Ivan Day’s Historic Food and show examples of Day’s recreation of some of the first sweet pudding recipes. Arguably the first one of all is for rice pudding, but it doesn’t resemble any rice pudding that the Hot Desserts report would recognise. It comes from 1615 and Gervase Markham (remember him? the playwright contemporary of Shakespeare, not the pray the gay away/”your cancer is a gift from God guy”). Markham’s English Huswife has a recipe for rice, milk and eggs mixed with pepper, cloves, mace, currents, dates and sugar, all wrapped in pig guts. Day describes it as something that: “would probably appeal to most modern pallettes”, but that does kind of assume a liking for rice pudding in the first place, something for which neither Professor Plum nor I have a taste.
Somewhat odder is Day’s other early pudding recipe, from The Queen’s Closet Opened credited just to W.M. in 1655. The recipe is for “Lord Conway’s Ambergris Puddings” and, as the title suggests, is made with the popular whale vomit based perfume ingredient. Not only that, but it begins in spectacularly unappealing fashion for a sweet recipe by saying: “First take the guts of a young hog, and wash them very clean, and then take two pound of the best hogs fat…” According to Day its musky odours were designed as an aphrodisiac and it actually tastes like: “an orange-flower scented marchpane”. Despite the dubious sounding fat and meat elements, therefore, W.M.’s recipe offers surprisingly palatable flavour combinations.
Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before sausage type puddings were phased out at the sweet end of the spectrum with the invention of the pudding cloth during the 17th century. The decades that followed saw the development of the kinds of traditional puddings discussed at the start of this post, from the traditional English plum pudding to the jam roly-poly (traditions that are more conserved in the traditional steamed Christmas pudding than at any other time of the year).
According to the Oxford Companion to Food: “During the 18th century, suet mixtures were joined by the first sponge puddings, and boiled and baked batters became common. Sweet puddings included all kinds of fruits, jam, spices, meringue, and other delicacies. Plain puddings remained important. Among savoury types, the first beef steak and mutton puddings appeared. Sweet milk pottages made with cereals such as rice or barley persisted. As new kinds of starchy product began to be imported…these were also adopted for that purpse…The disappearance of domestic servants in the 20th century brought further changes. The pudding-cloth was found to be difficult for housewives…boiled pudding were now almost made in basins covered with greased paper and foil and steamed partly immersed in water. Thus did the British steamed pudding come fully into its own. Roll-shaped puddings were either converted to basin format or baked in specially made tubular tins.”
The use of “pudding” to mean “dessert” is a largely 20th century development. Nancy Mitford, whose reaction to her famously Nazi-sympathising family was to assert her love of traditional conservative values, gave it as an example in her linguistic snobbery list on “U and non-U English” published as The English Aristocracy in Encounter magazine (apparently, real posh people say “pudding”, social climbers giving themselves airs say “sweet”).
In the early years of the 21st century, pudding hasn’t disappeared. The traditional sponge pudding has become the chocolate fondant, developed in the 1980s, although there is some debate between America and France as to who gets the credit for this molten middled pudding. (On the subject of Americans and pudding, the word seems to mean something entirely different again over there, something more akin to custard, just adding to the etymological confusion engendered by a word that essentially means both “sausage” and “cake”).
Which brings us to the Great British Bake Off. It’s hard to say that there has been any decline in pudding popularity when this quintessentially English slice of abject cosiness is the most talked about show on TV. Last week, pudding came up as the subject of the “Signature Bake” challenge at the start of “Desserts Week“. By the end of the episode, it was an incident when making a baked alaska wherein one contestant left another’s ice cream out and he threw his dessert in the bin that genuinely made front page news and had all the papers talking, somewhat overshadowing the hot pudding element.
That challenge, though, involved what the show described as “self-saucing puddings”, essentially meaning fondants or the more old fashioned “surprise” type sponge puddings with the sauce beneath, which got me wondering: if I made one of these currently popular self-saucing puds with the flavours of one of those early 17th century sausage puddings, would that not demonstrate at least a certain element of continuity in pudding?
I decided, therefore, to return to The Queen’s Closet Opened and the whale vomit sausage that is “Lord Conway’s Ambergris Pudding”. Choosing not to focus on its meaty elements and instead on the orange flower and almond flavours, I decided to make an orange and almond “surprise” type pudding pot (on British Bake Off Diana, the contestant vilified for removing the offending ice cream from the freezer, made a similar-ish orange pudding before her supposed scandalous behaviour).
I made a sponge mix from self raising flour, ground almond, sugar, egg, melted butter and orange blossom water and put it into ramekins. Making a syrup from the juice of the oranges, sugar and a little cointreau, I poured this over the sponge and baked it so the sponge sat on top of the orange-y syrup. This I served topped with toasted flaked almonds and accompanied by some orange creme fraiche ice cream and candied orange peel that I had soaked in the orange-cointreau syrup.
The end result bore about as little resemblance to a sausage from the 1600s as another foodstuff possibly could, so much so that it may be hard to credit both as “orange and almond puddings”, but it undoubtedly presented a much more appealing take on the subject to the contemporary palate. The taste was indeed a very pleasing mix of orange and almond, with a sweet syrupy sauce probably somewhat beyond the sugar capacity of a 17th century pudding. That it proved a very pleasant pudding just goes to show that while tastes have changed in a great many ways, there will always be a taste for pudding of one sort or another.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: This was a lovely pudding, and one I’d happily have again. It tasted surprisingly modern for such an old dish, but maybe that was the absence of pig intestines and whale vomit. It turns out there are some things you can’t even get from Waitrose!