POSTED: Friday, December 21, 2012 - 6:34pm
UPDATED: Friday, December 21, 2012 - 6:37pm
(CNN) -- As the temperature falls and the leaves start to crackle under foot, British minds turn towards comfort food -- and there's nothing more comforting than a traditional suet pudding.
Suet, as in, beef fat?
In a dessert?
Why yes, actually.
And do you know what? It's really rather good.
I know it sounds strange -- the idea of putting beef or mutton fat into a sweet dish. But stay with me for a minute. The classic British pudding is a creation of flour, eggs, sugar and sweet flavorings. So far, so yummy, right? Then they're boiled or steamed in a cloth or basin -- which is quite jolly.
And then there's something about the texture of suet, the thin, slightly gritty layer that's left on the roof of your mouth, that's marvelously satisfying. It's hearty, it's delicious and it warms the parts other puddings simply can't reach.
Suet doesn't taste of beef, or mutton; at most there's a wholesome hint of the farmyard about it. It's also deceptively light, making doughs that are fluffy and golden, and it goes splendidly with custard. So in the winter, especially after a long country walk, there's nothing quite so satisfying.
Suet puddings are the cornerstones of British "nursery" food -- stodgy, hot, carb-heavy yet cheap meals that were (and in places, still are) popular with schoolchildren and nostalgia-lovers alike. They're a long way from the tantalizing, petite desserts we see in high-end restaurants today. They do one thing: Fill. You. Up.
Culinary historian Kate Colquhoun has dated the earliest mention of suet pudding to a 1617 recipe for "Cambridge Pudding," a pudding made with dried fruits, boiled in a pudding cloth, named because it was made for students at Cambridge University. For most people, until the method of cooking using pudding cloths was invented, puddings could only be cooked when an animal was slaughtered, as only the grandest houses had home ovens and the stomach or intestines of an animal were the only available containers that could hold a pudding mixture that could be cooked over a fire.
Get a recipe for Christmas pudding
But then it was discovered that a cloth dipped in hot water and dusted with flour would hold a pudding mixture that could be boiled. This meant that hearty, nourishing puddings could be cooked all year round, and suet puddings, both savory and sweet, quickly became incredibly popular: By the eighteenth century, they were a central part of the British diet.
Puddings had their famous fans too -- the writer Samuel Johnson was noted for his fondness for puddings, albeit of the savory sort, and Charles Dickens described them thus in "A Christmas Carol":
"A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding."
Suet puddings fell out of favour in the latter half of the 20th century, primarily because of health concerns, but have made a comeback in recent years, being championed by British chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Delia Smith and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
I remember devouring our school cook's puddings with joy after forcing down tepid slices of questionable meat and grey school cabbage. (Remember: The cabbage isn't ready until ALL the vitamins are boiled out.) Mrs. Mac's jam roly-poly was a dream by comparison -- a sweet, sticky, spiraled slice of jammy goodness and the only thing to help us recover from hockey in time for double maths.
So here are my top five suet puddings you really should try:
The perfect gateway drug for those seeking to develop a suet pudding habit, the jam roly-poly is, as its name suggests, a suet pastry spread with jam, rolled like a Swiss roll and then steamed or baked. This pretty pudding is a hearty belly-filler and, because of its sweetness, a particular favorite with children. Serve with generous lashings of custard.
This nursery classic is a solid, space-filling, rib-sticking pudding that'll fill you up and fuel you for hours. Deceptively light and fluffy and often rolled like a jam roly-poly, it should also be served with lashings of custard. Oh, and stop sniggering at the back. According to one theory, the "spots" are the raisins; the "dick" is the dough, or dog, if it's rolled.
Odds-on favorite for "best-named pudding in history," the clootie dumpling is a spiced suet delight, studded with fruit and steamed in a cloth (or clootie). It's a Scottish recipe similar to Christmas pudding, but lighter and with less fruit, generally served sliced and often made to mark celebrations such as birthdays and Christmas.
Sussex Pond Pudding
My personal favorite, and a source of regional pride (I'm a Sussex lass), the Sussex Pond Pudding is a suet pastry pudding with a lemon, called a "frog," at its center. As the pudding steams, the lemon releases its juices, and when the pudding is cut, a fragrant, tartly sweet lake of buttery sauce pools out. It's truly the queen of puddings.
And if the Sussex Pond Pudding is the queen, this magnificent double-steamed beast is most certainly the king. Packed with more fruit and nuts than a shop full of Whole Foods hippies, it's rich, dark and strongly flavored as it's allowed to mature before its final steaming. They're traditionally made on Stir Up Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent) but some swear they're best when allowed to mature for years.
As a vital part of a British Christmas lunch, a proper Christmas pud should be crowned with holly, doused in brandy and set on fire, borne into the dining room by a triumphant cook. My mother sloshes on the brandy with great enthusiasm -- so far no lost eyebrows.
You'll likely only manage a small portion, but don't worry about leftovers. My Scottish mother-in-law remembers her grandmother and great-aunt frying slices of Christmas pudding in butter and lemon juice on Boxing Day. And if that doesn't clog your arteries warm the cockles of your heart, I don't know what will.