Every December I decide to make an English steamed pudding, and every December I don’t make an English steamed pudding. Why not? Plum pudding sounds like the most magical Yuletide dessert, rosy and succulent and full of plums. Then I pull out a cookbook, read the ingredients, and remember why I’ve never made one. Plum pudding is not rosy and succulent and plummy; is is black, alcoholic, and raisiny. This would be ok with me, but no one else in my family would touch such a dessert. Figgy pudding, packed with dried fruit and rum, would be every bit as unpopular. So how could I ever have a steamed English pudding for the holidays?
Here’s the solution: Sussex Pond pudding. The late Jane Grigson, author of the 1974 English Food, proclaimed it the “the best of all English boiled suet puddings.” It is not black, alcoholic, and raisiny; it is golden, suave, and lemony. And there’s something magical about the way it’s made. You line a pudding basin (or Pyrex bowl) with soft pastry dough, fill it with butter, sugar, and a whole lemon, then top with a little more pastry. Steam the pudding for 4 hours and you have a magnificent, bronzed pudding to put on the holiday table. “In the middle the butter and sugar melt to a rich sauce, which is sharpened with the juice from the lemon,” writes Grigson. “Its citrus bitter flavor is a subtlety which raises this pudding to the highest class.”
The late Laurie Colwin described her experience with Sussex Pond pudding in an essay titled “Kitchen Horrors.” But my first Sussex Pond pudding, made with Grigson’s recipe, was a Kitchen Hit – adorable, sticky, and delicious. Everyone loved it, and my husband ate the leftovers for breakfast every day until they were gone. I made it again, this time with 2 limes instead of a single lemon and again it was terrific. I thought I had Sussex Pond pudding down.
Then one day I was flipping through a copy of Leon: Baking and Puddings by Claire Ptak and Henry Dimbleby, and decided I’d give their Sussex Pond pudding recipe a shot. There’s no going back to Grigson, I’m afraid. The Grigson pudding is good; the Leon pudding — which calls for Lyle’s golden syrup and which you steam in the oven rather than on the stovetop — is insanely good. It’s richer, more butterscotchy, more substantial, altogether better. I’ve tasted the puddings warm, side by side just to be sure, and I am sure.
A few words about suet, the hard, white fat surrounding the kidneys of a cow that is the cornerstone of traditional British winter puddings. The authors of Leon write that “nothing else can give a steamed pudding quite the same glossy, sticky crust.” But they also concede that you can substitute unsalted butter and I can’t imagine it makes a huge difference which fat you use. That said, I did seek out suet for my puddings. After an hour of internet searches and a half dozen phone calls, I finally found a supermarket in a well-to-do nearby suburb that carries suet in November and December. I will give you a tip: Figure out where elderly WASP ladies shop, and call that supermarket first, as this is the demographic that still makes Christmas puddings and mincemeat pies. If I’d figured this out earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time.
As I said, I’ve successfully replaced the lemons with limes and have made the pudding with an orange as well. A tangerine would probably work and I think a pudding studded with kumquats would be supercool.
You can use any heatproof bowl of more or less the right size to make the pudding. A 2-quart Pyrex bowl works perfectly, but a slightly smaller one would also do the job
Sussex Pond Pudding
- 9 ounces (2 cups) self-rising flour
- 9 ounces cold, grated suet (or unsalted butter cut into bits)
- approximately 2/3 cup whole milk
- 11 ounces unsalted butter, softened
- 7 ounces (1 cup) light brown sugar
- 1/3 cup Lyle’s golden syrup
- 2 lemons, deeply scored through the rind and into the flesh (this allows the juices to escape.)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees F and lavishly butter a 2 quart heat-proof bowl.
Toss together the suet and flour in a large bowl. If you have room, put it in the freezer while you mix the filling.
Beat the softened butter and sugar until thoroughly creamed. Add the golden syrup and beat well.
Remove the flour mixture from the freezer and add the milk, a little at a time, stirring to form a soft, workable dough. Don’t add more milk than you need.
Roll the dough out on a floured countertop. You want to create a sort of pouch for the pudding in your bowl. Place the rolled dough in the bowl and let it drape over the edges. Put half the filling inside the pudding shell, then place the lemons atop the sugar upright, side-by-side. Add the rest of the sugar mixture to more or less cover the lemons. Use the overhanging dough to cover the filling. Pinch the dough together to seal the top, patching as necessary. It doesn’t have to be beautiful; this will be the bottom of the pudding. Now cover with a pleated piece of parchment or waxed paper and tie this in place with a piece of twine tied around the bowl.
Boil some water. Place the pudding in a large, deep pan, like a roasting pan, and pour the water around it to come most the way up the sides of the bowl.
Bake for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes. Carefully invert onto a serving platter and serve while still very hot. It is excellent with vanilla ice cream.