If you were born in England in the first sixty years of the last century, you may get a tear in your eye when you hear the words 'steamed' and 'pudding'. On the other hand, if you were booted into a boarding school during your tender years, those two words may bring on spasms uncontrollable retching (but more of that later).
My husband, born in the early Sixties in England, has lived in South Africa for almost 40 years, but is still hopelessly nostalgic about soft, cakey, syrupy steamed puddings, preferably cloaked in custard.
His soul - although thoroughly South African by now - continues to crave the gentle English comfort foods that he ate as a child, and, above all, he craves Proper Pudding. His late mother, Audrey Rayner, was an excellent and intuitive cook whose cooking style, though thoroughly and unashamedly English, had a lightness of touch and a finesse that completely abolishes any notions that traditional English food is stodgy, bland or boring. Audrey's almond tart is legendary in our family: try it for yourself.
This type of steamed pudding has a very long and interesting pedigree, and is a direct descendant of medieval and Elizabethan puddings. Containing shredded suet, meat, raisins, currants, spice and - later on - sugar, these mixtures were packed into sausage casings, stomach linings or linen, tied with string, and cooked in boiling water over an open range.
In her wonderful book Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, Hilary Spurling remarks: 'The extraordinary thing about bag puddings is their longevity: they were hardly new inventions in 1604, and they retained a central position in English home cooking right up to the time of my mother and grandmother.'
Steamed and boiled puddings have made a modest showing over the past decade or so, as British celebrity chefs have plundered the past for inspiration, but they're still not mainstream enough to have made their way into the suburban kitchens of your average Jamie-and-Nigella-trained domestic cook. Perhaps this is because it seems like such a bother to have to steam a pudding (au contraire: it is astonishingly easy!). Maybe steamed puddings are just too old-fashioned (or inappropriate, if you live in a hot climate, as I do).
Or perhaps, as Hilary Spurling suggests, these puddings have lost favour because the associations with stodgy boarding-school food just run too deep: 'I suppose what finally did for them was the nauseating slatternly meanness of school and institutional food in wartime, and in the years of austerity that followed. People old enough to remember that time still have vivid memories of greasy, grey slabs of suet crust, slimy clothes and... congealed white fat on cold plates.'
Please don't be put off by this description: this pudding is so very good (and I speak as someone who never eats pudding, and only makes one if I'm trying to butter up my husband!).
I didn't have Audrey's original recipe for steamed ginger pudding, but I was determined to reproduce it, so I adapted a similar recipe (for 'Canary Pudding') from a book I think Audrey may have consulted: my own mum's first cookbook, Good Housekeeping's Picture Cookery, published in 1954. It took three tries for me to nail this recipe (the first attempt was too dry; the second too bland, and the third was Goldilocks-right, or so says my husband).
This pudding is best made in an old-fashioned glass pudding bowl of 1-litre capacity, but you can use a small, deep, square or circular ovenproof baking dish.
It's best served immediately, but you can make it in advance, set it aside, and steam it for another 20 minutes before you serve it.
Steamed Ginger Pudding
4 T (60 ml) golden syrup, warmed
8 small pieces preserved ginger, finely chopped
the finely grated zest and juice of a lemon (or an orange)
100 g unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup (160 ml) white granulated sugar
2 large free-range eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup (160 ml) cake flour
2 t (10 ml) powdered ginger
1/2 t (2.5 ml) baking powder
a pinch of salt
a little milk (see recipe)
Put a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or stock pot on the heat, add five centimetres of water and bring to the boil. Butter a sturdy glass pudding bowl, or a thick-walled ceramic dish with a capacity of 1 litre. Cut a circle of tin foil or parchment paper big enough to cover the dish and overlap the edges by at least 7 centimetres, and set aside. Have some string ready.
Pour the syrup into the bottom of the buttered pudding bowl (you may need to warm the syrup first if it's a cold day) and add the chopped ginger pieces. Sprinkle with lemon juice, but do not stir. Set aside.
Put the softened butter and sugar into a new, large mixing bowl and beat vigorously, with an electric mixer, if you have one, until fluffy and well combined. Add the beaten egg, in small dollops, beating well between each dollop. Sift the cake flour, ginger, baking powder and salt into the butter/sugar mixture. Have a cup of of milk standing nearby. Starting at one side of the bowl, and using the electric beater or a whisk, gradually incorporate dry ingredients into the wet mixture, adding just enough milk (two to three tablespoons of milk is usually is enough) to achieve a soft, dropping consistency. Stir in the lemon zest.
Pour the batter gently into the buttered pudding bowl, taking care not to disturb the syrup. Cover with the circle of tin foil, pressing its overlapping edge down over the outside of the bowl. Wrap the piece of string around the bowl just below its lip (or top edge), and make a tight knot. Put the bowl into the big pan of boiling water: the water should reach half-way up the sides of the bowl. Cover the pan, and adjust the heat so that the water remains at a gentle rolling boil.
Cook for an hour and twenty minutes, checking the water level now and then. Remove the pudding bowl from the boiling water and run a sharp knife around the edges of the pudding to loosen it. Invert the pudding bowl onto a warmed platter and give it a good shake so that the pudding tips out cleanly.
Serve with extra syrup and warm custard or cold whipped cream or - what the heck - both.