British-style puddings: a rich lesson in desserts

Contra Costa Times

When most people on this side of the pond hear the word “pudding,” they think of the creamy, custardy concoction so famously hawked on TV by Bill Cosby.

But Americans are beginning to learn about pudding in the British sense of the word — a rich, moist, dense dessert that’s almost invariably served warm, with a generous dollop of thickened cream.

Dickensian puddings are truly the quintessential cold-weather dessert. There is Queen’s Pudding and brandy-torched Plum Pudding and puddings with funny names, such as Roly-Poly and Spotted Dick.

Some are acquired tastes.

But there’s one that wins over nearly everyone who tries it — Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The caramelized sweet originated in England nearly a century ago, but it began enjoying a trendy revival in its homeland during the 1990s.

These days, you can find sticky toffee puddings in almost every pub in Britain and Australia — and it’s popped up on a number of restaurant menus, too, including Tyler Florence’s new Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. You can even find it at Costco.

Chef Michael Dotson of Martins West Gastropub, in Redwood City, Calif., has had the iconic British pudding on the menu since the pub opened last year.

“I’m fascinated by old recipes and reinterpreting them,” he says. “We pulled it apart and completely rebuilt it. Most people make it too sweet, and we took it in more of a savory direction.”

The result is more of a cakelike dessert with deep, complex flavors from chopped dates, brown sugar, coffee and Scotch. Served warm from the oven, the finished pudding is topped with a buttery toffee sauce.

Initially, diners were confused when they ordered “pudding,” and a cake arrived.

“Some people got angry,” he says. “But eventually, it stopped. Everybody loved it.”

Sticky Toffee Pudding eventually proved so popular, Dotson says he can’t take it off the menu for fear of upsetting people.

Tracy Claros, owner of the Texas-based Sticky Toffee Pudding Company, agrees that Americans are finally coming around to the British pudding concept.

The English native, whose creations have been featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, considers herself a bit of a pudding ambassador.

Her sticky toffee pudding won a gold medal at this year’s Fancy Food Show in New York City.

And her recent production run — at Alameda’s Donsuemor bakery — proved so popular with Costco’s Northern California customers, the warehouse giant just ordered 3,000 more of the family-sized puddings. (Individual serving sizes are available at Whole Foods, Andronico’s and Mollie Stone’s.)

Now that sticky toffee pudding has captured American taste buds, can other puddings be far behind?

Anyone who reads Dickens or watches period dramas on BBC knows plum pudding as the classic Christmas dessert, often served with a sprig of holly and set aflame with a little brandy.

There are centuries of tradition behind the recipe most commonly used today, which consists of dried fruits — the word “plum” once referred to any dried fruit — as well as flour, breadcrumbs, eggs and spices. The flavors are similar to fruit cake, but less heavy and dense in texture.

At one time, beef suet was used, but many cooks now substitute butter for that hard-to-find ingredient. Instead of being baked, the pudding is typically steamed in a covered bowl or pudding mold for several hours.

Plum pudding was often part of American Christmas feasts in the early 20th century, but its popularity declined after World War II with the advent of the first successful boxed cake mixes. Changing tastes caused the pudding to all but disappear from most celebrations.

These days, Claros makes a lighter version with currants, hazelnuts and fresh apples. It’s baked in a Bain-Marie, rather than steamed on the stovetop. But even Claros admits plum pudding can be an acquired taste.

“As a child, I didn’t like it so much,” she says. “You have to have it a few times.”

Dotson gets occasional requests for the plum version, but he believes the sticky toffee version has a special place in customers’ hearts.

“I’ve done persimmon puddings in the past that were very good,” he says. “But people didn’t get it.”

Claros agrees. Her lemon pudding, which she says was inspired by British celebrity chef Delia Smith’s Hot Citrus Pudding, won the best baked goods category at the Fancy Food Show three years ago, but it lags behind its sister sweet in popularity. Maybe she should just accept the truth, she says, “I don’t expect to create anything that people will like more than sticky toffee pudding.”

Even Scrooge would agree.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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