'Dishes worth hanging onto': rib-sticking puddings to make this weekend

Desserts may have fallen out of favour, but there’s nothing more comforting than bread and butter pudding or a steamed sponge

Apple-caramel bread and butter pudding
Who can resist a spoonful or two? Credit: Haarala Hamilton & Valerie Berry

Times have definitely changed. When I was in my teens, my mum still served pudding after the evening meal. They were simple – crumble, stewed apples or custard with tinned plums (how I loved the coldness and tartness of those plums against the warm sweetness of the custard). Now puddings, if they’re eaten at all, are served after a special dinner or Sunday lunch.

The change has to do with health and convenience. Most of us find it difficult enough to get a main course on the table midweek, never mind a pudding for afters – but desserts still illicit cries of pleasure when you carry them to the table. Many of us can relate to Brillat-Savarin’s last words, ‘Bring on the dessert. I think I am about to die.’ When at a restaurant, I always consider the starter and the pudding before choosing the main course.

Having a sweet conclusion to a meal is a relatively recent idea, though. In the Middle Ages, sweet and savoury dishes were served together, and savoury meat pies were often strewn with sugar and candied fruits. Later, fantastical Renaissance dishes made with sugar paste weren’t supposed to be eaten, simply admired (well, the great chef Antoine Carême did think that patisserie was a branch of architecture).

The dessert course can still be the most inventive. Albert Adrià, who was the pastry chef at El Bulli, said of his art, ‘There is no end to creativity.’ British puddings, however, are basic, sensible and easy to make. Many were developed from dishes that were originally savoury (which is why we still use the word pudding for both sweet and savoury dishes). In the 16th century, dried fruit, sugar, spices, fat and mixtures of meat and blood (a forerunner of our Christmas pudding) were boiled in animal stomachs, then in pudding cloths. Eventually these morphed into sweet steamed puddings made with syrup, jam and treacle.

Once the banquet went out of fashion in the 18th century, sweet dishes such as creams, ice creams, jellies, pies, milky puddings, batter puddings and steamed sponges were called ‘desserts’ (as in France) and were served after the savoury dishes. We really took to them – they were a source of comfort and cheap calories – and gave them unusual names such as plum duff, apple hat and Eton mess. In many homes they were served every day, but they gradually fell out of favour until chefs revived them in the 1980s.

Baked rice pudding with rhubarb in mulled wine Credit: Haarala Hamilton & Valerie Berry

The late Gary Rhodes looked at old British dishes with fresh eyes and brought them up to date. Anton Mosimann put a luxurious version of bread-and-butter pudding on his menu at The Dorchester (I still use his recipe) and suddenly enthusiastic home cooks were pulling their copy of Jane Grigson’s English Food from their shelves and making Sussex pond pudding.

New British puddings, which felt old-fashioned, were invented. Sticky toffee pudding was created in the 1970s by Francis Coulson at the Sharrow Bay Hotel in Cumbria (though he later admitted that it was not all his own work but had been inspired by ‘a sweet woman from Lancashire’). The oversweet banoffee pie – made with caramel, bananas and crushed biscuits – was born in the 1970s at The Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex. Gastropubs have been responsible for promoting these and for keeping old-fashioned British puds popular.

The puddings I offer you below are not for every day. They’re calorific. You’ll probably need a lie-down if you eat one of them after Sunday lunch. But they’re old-fashioned, comforting, loved and part of our culinary heritage. It’s worth hanging on to dishes like that.