“The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, this trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo was called a ‘dead wake'” ~ Erik Larson | Dead Wake
This is the cake you bake at 8 pm on a Tuesday, with flour (and a puppy) on the floor, wool on the feet. The one your husband, the next morning, eats as dessert before breakfast. It's one of the (many) desserts you've wanted to master from the Great British Baking Show.
The cake that makes you want to visit the Pudding Club, who've banded together to prevent the demise of the classic British Puddings. Those who cheer for every syrupy sponge, every jam roly-poly, every creamy batch of custard.
Truly, could there be a sweeter mission than saving dessert?
This isn’t the kind of cake that you reserve for company; it’s a Tuesday-night sweet. It’s also a Wednesday-afternoon, coming-in-from-the-cold sweet. It is also, the cake you make for no good reason at all (the best reason there is). I don’t like to use the word perfect, because I tend toward fickle, but I will say it here.
I think this cake is perfect.
But also: it’s the cake you make when you’ve lost a sliver of hope through a long, dreary winter.
It’s a cake you carry gingerly onto the elevator, en route to a book club. Because what would a story about the sinking of the Lusitania be without a steamed pudding? A dessert that was a mainstay on menus during her last voyage.
My husband introduced me to Erik Larson last year. I started with Devil in the White City, and, he quickly became my favorite author. While I loved the story about Holmes, the serial killer who operated during Chicago's World Fair of 1893, there was something magical about the Lusitania.
In May 1915, it was the fastest and most glamorous ocean liner in service. A boat so large and so fast that nobody thought a submarine could a) catch it or b) sink it
Stories of the nearly 2000 passengers aboard, 1200 who were lost (including 94 children). My heart hurt for the parents who were separated from or couldn't find their children during those final minutes. I can't even imagine. One woman even gave birth underwater.
The irreplaceable treasures like Charles Dickens's personal copy of A Christmas Carol with handwritten notes, not to mention the 100 priceless drawings done by William Makepeace Thackeray. All carried on board by Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat. None of which was insured
I loved reading about U-20, the German submarine, commanded by Captain Walther Schweiger. Everything from the cramped quarters, U-boat sweat, no showers, and only one potty(!)
The glimpses into the love life of Woodrow Wilson. While in the White House, he fell into a terrible depression after the death of his wife. Ultimately he was distracted by the lovely Edith Galt; a love affair that diverted his attention away from the world stage
The British code-breakers in Room 40, who had a copy of a German naval codebook. They intercepted messages, tracked U-boats, and were privy to incredible amounts of top-secret information throughout the warWith handfuls of Goldfish crackers, glasses of wine, and plates of comforting, warm steamed pudding we found ourselves asking
Why didn't the British Admiralty provide an escort, given the ship carried vital (and secret) cargo of ammunition and artillery shells?
Why wasn't the Lusitania diverted to the newer and safer North Channel route?
Were Churchhill and British intelligence (Room 40) partially to blame for the sinking? They knew there was a strong possibility U-boats were in the waters
Why was Wilson so reluctant to go to war?
How in the world did she sink in only 18 minutes?
Did the British deliberately set up the Lusitania to force America’s hand to enter the war?
Friends, if you haven't read Dead Wake, I can't say enough good things.
But let's talk about steamed pudding
Before my brother turned me on to Great British Baking Show, I had no idea such a thing existed. I equated pudding with something either egg-based like custard, or one of my great loves, the bread pudding. Come to find out; pudding is what the British call dessert, even when it's ice cream
They can be savory (with meat) or sweet and were hugely popular in the 19th Century. The days of more primitive stoves and steaming was a way to guarantee an even cooking temp. As ovens became more reliable, cooks moved away from puddings and, instead, to cakes.
It's a batter that's similar, but far wetter than cake. And while you can’t hear a cake baking, but you can definitely hear the soft rattle and puttering of pudding as it steams. A subtle reminder that something deeply comforting is on the way.
This recipe is as simple as it gets. It's a moist and light, almost spongy pudding with a delicate crumb and a delightful, but not too rich, toffee flavor. The hardest part was waiting for it to cool a bit before taking a bite. Rather than a more traditional custard or cream, might I recommend topping yours with extra toffee sauce?
A few tips and tricks we've picked up along the way
I ordered a more traditional vessel, but never fear if you don't have one. You can use a bundt pan, glass, or ceramic bowl, something that will hold at least 6-7 cups. I've read you could even use a large coffee can. If you want to be dainty, it is possible to use smaller individual molds. They'll cook in half the time, but you'll need to do some intricate balancing in your pot.
You'll also need a stockpot, with a cover, that's large enough to fit the vessel inside
A method for keeping the bowl from touching the sides and bottom of the pot while cooking. Nothing fancy, balls of aluminum foil work great.
It is essential that water doesn't find it's way in as the pudding steams. If your bowl doesn't have a lid, cover tightly with a double layer of plastic wrap and a double layer of foil. Error on the side of overwrapping here, and make sure there aren't any gaps.
While it's cooking, don't touch it! It's a fatal mistake; absolutely fatal
If you open it up, and your pudding has sunk in the middle, that's it. There's no going back ..
Timing is important because it should be served warm but requires a standing time of at least 10 minutes; ideally 20-30 minutes before unmolding.
Because steamed puddings are generally served warm, they're enhanced by a cold sauce for contrast in temperature and texture. Common are rum-flavored sauces a dollop of whipped cream, or eggy vanilla custard (like we did)
~ Adapted from Great Brittish Puddings by The Pudding Club
Sticky Toffee and Date Pudding
- 4 ½ Tbsp heavy cream
- ½ oz unsalted butter
- 2 oz dark brown sugar
- 3 ½ oz chopped dates
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 19 oz water
- 2 oz unsalted butter, softened + more for greasing the pan
- 6 oz light brown sugar
- 1 egg (large or XL)
- 8 oz all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Lightly grease a 2-pint (1.1 liter) pudding basin and bring a stock-pot of water to a boil
- Crumple up some balls of aluminum foil. Some big and some little, depending on the size of your stock-pot.
Soak the Dates
- In a medium-sized bowl, add the chopped dates, vanilla, baking soda, and water. Set aside
- In a small saucepan, add the toffee sauce ingredients. Melt, stirring occasionally, over low heat until just combined.
- Pour into the greased basin and set aside.
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.
- In a large bowl, add the butter and sugar. Mix until pale and fluffy, then gradually beat in the egg.
- To the butter and sugar mix, alternate with additions of the date mix and flour mix, stirring between each addition to combine. (The batter will be so liquidy, you'll think you've done something wrong. Don't worry, you haven't)
- Pour the pudding mix over into the pudding basin over then toffee sauce. Cover with a lid or foil (see notes above).
Steam the Pudding
- Add some balls of foil to the pot, enough so the pudding won't touch the bottom. Carefully put the basin into the water. You might need to add some more foil balls on the side to stabilize it. Also, after your basin is added, you want the water level to be ½ to ¾ of the way up the sides. (It's tricky, bring a helper)
- Also, note the water. We turn the temperature to high until the water boils, then lower it to a setting of 3 or 4 while the pudding is steaming. The water is at a slow boil.
- Cover the stock-pot and steam for 1 ½ hours
- Carefully take the basin out of the water, take off the lid, and let it stand at least 10 minutes, but ideally 20-30 minutes before un-molding.