Baking challenge: dethroning the Queen of Puddings

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week six (pudding week) of series three: a Queen of Puddings.

Queen of puddings

I like British food. I always feel bad that it has such a poor reputation globally, since the decline of British cooking really comes from the hardship of rationing during – and after, of course – the Second World War, when British cooks had learned to rely on powdered egg, corned beef and old heels of leaden bread to keep themselves and their families fed. Before that, British food was creative, adventurous, and even sustained a good reputation in Europe – it wasn’t all the boiled vegetables of popular imagination. I’ve leafed through plenty of original magazines from the 1910s in the British Library and some of the recipes are surprisingly fresh and modern sounding. Contemporary British cooking, of course, draws on influences from around the world as well as relying on local, seasonal and traditional flavours and techniques.

Mary Berry's Queen of puddings

But for all that I believe British food is irrationally maligned, I don’t like, or even understand, Queen of Puddings (and this ain’t my first time at the Queen of Puddings rodeo). Like many recipes with a long history, it is breadcrumb-based, consisting in this case of a lemony breadcrumb-thickened custard, topped with a river of red jam, topped with a crown of lightly toasted meringue. The end result is gloppy, sticky, and very sweet, and it doesn’t keep well, either, as the meringue starts to droop and weep into the other components if it sits out for a bit. For me, this is no queen, but a mere pretender to the throne – the Perkin Warbeck of British desserts, if you will. On account of its acute sweetness, however, I can imagine children liking this. And if you do like Queen of Puddings, Mary Berry’s recipe (below) is certainly a good and reliable one, producing pretty picture-perfect results.

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Baking challenge: little marmalade and sticky toffee fig steamed puddings

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week six (pudding week) of series three: two different sponge puddings, each served with a different sauce, six of each.

Mini marmalade steamed puddings
Mini marmalade steamed pudding

Running through almost every Belgian I’ve ever known, like a seam of quartz through rock, is an inexplicable Anglophilia – inexplicable because it seems to pulse through Belgians who’ve never visited Britain and have no immediate familial or cultural links to the country. Is it because of Britain’s eventual support for our little country following the 1830 Belgian revolution, when a sentimental song at the opera spurred patriotic (anti-Dutch) riots? Because Britain housed 250,000 Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion during the First World War? Because Belgians really, really enjoy EastEnders?

Whatever the cause, Belgian Anglophilia is matched by no little bemusement towards British habits. After all, Brits eat stew with mash, rather than the proper accompaniment of frites; they drink pint after pint of weak beer, rather than a modest glass of 8% ABV; and when they do eat chips, they fry them to a crisp toasty brown and sprinkle them with malt vinegar to add insult to injury. But most bemusing of all is…the pudding.

“In Britain,” my grandmother declared one day, “They call everything PUDDING.” As I digested this statement, she leaned forward and added, “Here, the only thing WE call pudding is…PUDDING.”

Figgy sticky toffee pudding
Figgy sticky toffee pudding

You see, like in North America, ‘pudding’ in Dutch (same word, though it sounds slightly different) typically refers to custard (or sometimes jelly)-based soft desserts (like Angel Delight or those Alpro Soya long-life custards), whereas in Britain, of course ‘pudding’ usually means simply a dessert course. This terminology is, for some reason, endlessly amusing. (Notwithstanding this general bemusement, one of the most masterly books on the market about British puddings was in fact written by a Belgian).

For my twelve steamed puddings, I chose to make a marmalade pudding – mostly, admittedly, for the very smug-sounding reason of having an excess of homemade marmalade on my shelves after preserving fever hit me. I adapted a recipe from Justin Gellatly for this, adding orange zest for additional freshness and zip, and baking them as mini puddings rather than one large one. It’s served with an alcohol-spiked custard for absolute indulgence. The other recipe is Gizzi Erskine’s, and is a deliciously fig-laden version of classic sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a lusciously sticky sauce. (Yes, both are pretty wintery, but although it’s high summer for now, British summer evenings can still get pretty cold, you know…).

Recipes are below the jump, as always.

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Baking challenge: triple traditional (pudding) threat

The showstopper challenge for pudding week was to make not one but three – three! – puddings: a  crumble, a suet pastry pudding, and one incorporating bread (including breadcrumbs) – each baked, not boiled or steamed. There was no way that a two-person household could absorb three puddings simultaneously, so I had to stagger this challenge out. The consequence was that completing this challenge actually took quite a long time.

The suet pastry jam roly-poly pudding I made was delicious but utterly hideous (hence no photograph). The pastry was very soft and actually quite difficult to work with, and its appearance wasn’t helped by the fact that I didn’t follow the instructions properly. Nonetheless, soused with custard and eaten hot out of a bowl, it was appreciated and finished up by all. Not that ‘all’ were told I had used beef suet (none of them were vegetarian, Hindu or otherwise opposed to beef consumption), which I thought might disturb people a little. The suet pastry had a really good, crispy-crunchy texture, complemented by the demerara sugar that was very light, although not delicate – good and hearty and the kind of baking you’d expect to come out of a cold climate. You can find the recipe on the BBC website – it’s Nigella Lawson’s (hence why I chose it).

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Baking challenge: the definition of a signature sticky toffee pudding

The signature pudding challenge. As my grandmother says every time I visit her: “The English! They call everything pudding! They only thing we call pudding is…pudding!” By which she means, of course, the cornstarch-thickened custardy stovetop mixture (chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, etc), most likely to be concocted with the help of a packet, a bit like jelly. Not something I grew up with – I’m not sure if my mother is a pudding fan, but based on the evidence I doubt it.

For the British, puddings can be baked or steamed sweet sponge confections served with custard, or they can be rice puddings, or they can be savoury batter puddings like the Yorkshire. Traditionally, the sweet kind of pudding is made with suet. Pudding can also mean the sweet course served after the main meal – not the cake you eat for tea, nor the biscuit you have at elevenses (if you are Bilbo Baggins, anyway). But for pudding week of the Great British Bake-off, it is the first (British) definition which applied – except that they could only be baked, not steamed. This isn’t too problematic, really, since steaming puddings comes out of a time before owning domestic ovens was commonplace. Many people today seem to feel that the even, dry heat of an oven works better in cooking traditional sponge puddings than steaming (incidentally, a number of South-East Asian desserts are steamed instead of baked, as well, which I assume is similarly due to the absence of ovens and unavailability or expense of fuel).

Sticky toffee puddle with cream

So the challenge for the signature bake was to produce a traditional British pudding with a twist (baked, not steamed, as above). This posed a problem for me since I’d never eaten a traditional British baked pudding (apart from a crumble, I guess), let alone made one: not a sticky toffee, not a syrup sponge, not a jam roly-poly (until last week, anyway). So I threw the twist out of the window and just went with a very classic sticky toffee pudding. This turned out to be an excellent way of using up a huge bag of dates bought at the Holland and Barrett penny sale, so it was a win-win!

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