GRUB!: Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It's about time, really.  About time that I got around to blogging about Sticky Toffee Pudding, which is absolutely one of my most favourite things in the world.  It's really not the right time of year for this at all.  London is basking in unusually warm and sunny weather (finally!) with the temperature is predicted to top 30 degrees this weekend, whereas Sticky Toffee Pudding is best left to colder months, since that's when this stodgy wonder is at its best.  But my recent trip to the Lake District sent me home with a Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding, and since then I've been a bit sticky-toffee-obsessed.

A packet of Cartmel STP

Simply put, sticky toffee pudding is a dessert of spiced sponge cake tarted up with chopped dates and smothered in thick toffee sauce.  It's often served with ice cream or clotted cream, which is a definite bonus.  Done properly its incredibly moist, with a deep, rich taste and sweet, buttery sauce on top.  I think it may be the dates that add the depth of  flavour. (Aside: Sticky toffee pudding is perhaps the best possible thing one could do with a date.  And by date I mean the dried brown middle eastern fruit, not the romantic rendez-vous.  Though sticky toffee pudding is an excellent thing to do not just WITH a date but also ON a date.  If a guy took me on a date for sticky toffee pudding he'd get some serious points.  On the other hand the brown middle eastern fruit, in its non-sticky toffee form, is a bit too much like a cross between a giant raisin and a hairball for my tastes.  Sweet, but far too furry.  But in a sticky toffee pudding they play a critical supporting role, hence when I rule the world dates can stick around, but only if they keep to themselves and stop popping up in date squares and pressed into those creepy shrink-wrapped bricks with tiny plastic forks.)  Sticky toffee pudding is considered an iconic British pudding alongside favourites like bread and butter pudding, summer pudding, and Eton Mess.  The Brits may not do patisserie like the French, but damn they can do a proper, solid pudding.

A traditional sticky toffee pudding is steamed on the stovetop, as befits the "pudding" moniker (very much like steak and kidney pudding), but most of the recipes I've encountered now simply bake in the oven, which seems a bit of a cheat.  It's been a bit of a quest of mine to find the best sticky toffee pudding I can, but I admit I was skeptical about the pre-fab Cartmel pudding.  I couldn't believe that something that came out of a cardboard sleeve could really live up to the towering reputation of a proper sticky toffee pudding.  There were hurdles, to be sure.  The presentation in a pressed foil tin, the fact that the pudding is baked not steamed and, perhaps the greatest sin: no separate toffee sauce!  It seemed unlikely that a really satisfying sticky toffee experience could be had.  Nevertheless, even a substandard sticky toffee is likely to be better than no pudding at all, so I peeled off the lid to be confronted with a congealed layer of something I assumed to be proto-toffee and popped it into the oven for the requisite 15 minutes. 

Full disclosure: this is actually a photo of a sticky CHOCOLATE pudding also from Cartmel.  What can I say?  It seemed silly to go all that way and come back with one lousy pudding.  

Straight out of the oven.  It doesn't look like much when it comes out, but that proto-toffee layer clearly melted into the top of the pud, so maybe things wouldn't be all bad... 
(Another aside: "pud" is the diminutive form of pudding and is pronounced to rhyme with should, could and good.  As in: "Should we have pud?" "Of course we should!  That's if we could, it would be good."  Continue ad infinitum a la Dr Seuss.)

As I said, I was skeptical.  But I dished up a generous portion and dug in, despite the lack of sauce or cream or other accompaniment.  And how was it?  Simply: amazing.  Sublime. Perfect.  It was incredibly moist and rich and buttery.  The toffee sauce had clearly infused through the pudding in cooking, so the whole thing was properly sticky but also magically light.  And did I mention rich and buttery?  I think that sauce is made from about 75% pure butter, with a dash of crack cocaine.  The package is supposed to be portioned for 2-3 people but it was all I could do not to scoff the entire thing down in one sitting.  I did force myself to spoon the remainder into a container for later consumption, but that didn't stop me from literally turning the foil tin inside-out so I could lick it clean.

It still doesn't look like much, but trust me... Sooooo good.

As a follow up to the Cartmel experience, I thought I should seek out a good sticky toffee in a restaurant in town to compare, so I fired up Google and headed for Brown's in Covent Garden, which had a few good reviews. Maybe I should have just turned around when I arrived at the restaurant and the staff were busily attending to a elderly man who was clearly in some kind of distress and actually ended up being treated by paramedics while the lunch service went on around him.  Thankfully, he was fine and rejoined his table a short time later. Clearly it was not a good omen, but I went ahead and ordered the sticky toffee pudding and a cup of coffee and waited, filling the time with the crossword.  When the pudding arrive, it certainly looked the part.

Brown's sticky toffee pudding.  It's got the requisite sauce, and some added clotted cream and the mandatory arty dusting of icing sugar.  So far so good.

I dug in with great anticipation and… meh.  Where the Cartmel pudding was light but rich, the Brown's offering was heavy and bitter.  It may well have been steamed, because whereas a good steamed pudding is moist and lovely, a bad steamed pudding can be gluey and horrid. Brown's sticky toffee was sticky alright - it stuck to the roof of my mouth with alarming tenacity and no puddle of toffee sauce or blob of clotted cream could rescue it from the depths of mediocrity.  I finished it off of course, because I didn't want to be rude, but it was deeply disappointing.  Perhaps that's what happened to the nice old gentleman at Brown's. He was served this sticky toffee pudding, took one bite, and muttered to his companions, "This is a bloody disgrace!  By God, I didn't give Adolf six of the best at El Alamein just to end up eating a dish of black wallpaper paste masquerading as sticky toffee pudding!  This is a crime against Queen and country!  I shall write a letter to the Times!  I shall… oh my… I feel ever so slightly… errrr… don't want to make a scene but... (THUD)"

And so the search for the perfect sticky toffee pudding continues.  Rumours circulate that there's an excellent offering at a place called Abingdon's in Kensington.  And Andrew Edmond's in Soho gets rave reviews.  Happily, this is a quest I could continue more or less infinitely, 

In the mean time, here's a Guardian recipe that purports to be "perfect", though I haven't tried it.  Judge for yourselves.
Perfect sticky toffee pudding
Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

A good sticky toffee pudding should be more than simple sugar hit – add nuts, for texture, and cloves, for a hint of spice, and this is one transatlantic migrant which will have no problem getting its visa renewed. Serves 6

175g medjool dates, stoned and roughly chopped
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
300ml (1-1/4 cups) boiling water
50g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
80g (1/3-1/2 cup) golden caster sugar
80g (1/3-1/2 cup) dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
175g (1-1/2 cups) flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of ground cloves
75g (1 cup) walnuts

For the sauce:
115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
75g (1/3-1/2 cup) golden caster sugar
40g (1/4 cup) dark muscovado sugar
140ml (1/2 cup) double cream
(Pam's note: I'm inclined to think that a pinch of salt would elevate this sauce in a salted caramel kind of way…)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C (350F). Butter a baking dish approximately 24cm x 24cm (9"x9")
2. Make the sauce by putting all the ingredients into a pan with a pinch of salt and heating slowly until the butter has melted, then turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Boil for about 4 minutes, until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour half the sauce into the base of the dish and then put it in the freezer while you make the rest of the pudding.
3. Put the dates and bicarbonate of soda in a heatproof dish and cover with the boiling water. Leave to soften while you prepare the rest of the pudding.
4. Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy, and then beat in the eggs, a little at a time. Stir in the flour, baking powder, cloves and a pinch of salt until well combined, and then add the dates and their soaking water, and the walnuts, and mix well.
5. Take the dish out of the freezer and pour the batter on top of the toffee sauce. Put into the oven for 30 minutes, until firm to the touch, and then take out of the oven.
6. Heat the grill (broiler) to medium, and poke a few small holes evenly over the surface with a skewer or fork, and then pour over the rest of the sauce. Put briefly under the grill (broiler), keeping an eye on it as it can easily burn. Serve with vanilla ice cream (optional).

Brief update about non-sticky-toffee-related matters: I have a Russian visa!  I'm still waiting for them to send me a plane ticket and get me out to Moscow, but things are looking up. Realistically, I suspect I won't go until the end of July, but that's just more time to eat sticky toffee pudding and attempt to acquire more of that devilish language.  Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

липкий пудинг?

Lin said...

Just for the record... proper, steamed, sticky toffee pud is one of my specialities. Shall we have a go next time you're here? L

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