Linnie Rawlinson is the Special Projects Editor in CNN's London bureau.
As the temperature falls and the leaves start to crackle under foot, British minds turn towards comfort food – and there’s nothing more comforting than a traditional suet pudding.
Suet, as in, beef fat?
In a dessert?
Why yes, actually.
And do you know what? It’s really rather good.
I know it sounds strange – the idea of putting beef or mutton fat into a sweet dish. But stay with me for a minute. The classic British pudding is a creation of flour, eggs, sugar and sweet flavorings. So far, so yummy, right? Then they’re boiled or steamed in a cloth or basin – which is quite jolly.
And then there’s something about the texture of suet, the thin, slightly gritty layer that’s left on the roof of your mouth, that’s marvelously satisfying. It’s hearty, it’s delicious and it warms the parts other puddings simply can’t reach.
Suet doesn’t taste of beef, or mutton; at most there’s a wholesome hint of the farmyard about it. It’s also deceptively light, making doughs that are fluffy and golden, and it goes splendidly with custard. So in the winter, especially after a long country walk, there’s nothing quite so satisfying.
Suet puddings are the cornerstones of British “nursery” food – stodgy, hot, carb-heavy yet cheap meals that were (and in places, still are) popular with schoolchildren and nostalgia-lovers alike. They’re a long way from the tantalizing, petite desserts we see in high-end restaurants today. They do one thing: Fill. You. Up.
Culinary historian Kate Colquhoun has dated the earliest mention of suet pudding to a 1617 recipe for “Cambridge Pudding,” a pudding made with dried fruits, boiled in a pudding cloth, named because it was made for students at Cambridge University. For most people, until the method of cooking using pudding cloths was invented, puddings could only be cooked when an animal was slaughtered, as only the grandest houses had home ovens and the stomach or intestines of an animal were the only available containers that could hold a pudding mixture that could be cooked over a fire.
Get a recipe for Christmas pudding
But then it was discovered that a cloth dipped in hot water and dusted with flour would hold a pudding mixture that could be boiled. This meant that hearty, nourishing puddings could be cooked all year round, and suet puddings, both savory and sweet, quickly became incredibly popular: By the eighteenth century, they were a central part of the British diet.
Puddings had their famous fans too – the writer Samuel Johnson was noted for his fondness for puddings, albeit of the savory sort, and Charles Dickens described them thus in “A Christmas Carol”:
“A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding.”
Suet puddings fell out of favour in the latter half of the 20th century, primarily because of health concerns, but have made a comeback in recent years, being championed by British chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, Delia Smith and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
I remember devouring our school cook’s puddings with joy after forcing down tepid slices of questionable meat and grey school cabbage. (Remember: The cabbage isn’t ready until ALL the vitamins are boiled out.) Mrs. Mac’s jam roly-poly was a dream by comparison – a sweet, sticky, spiraled slice of jammy goodness and the only thing to help us recover from hockey in time for double maths.
So here are my top five suet puddings you really should try:
The perfect gateway drug for those seeking to develop a suet pudding habit, the jam roly-poly is, as its name suggests, a suet pastry spread with jam, rolled like a Swiss roll and then steamed or baked. This pretty pudding is a hearty belly-filler and, because of its sweetness, a particular favorite with children. Serve with generous lashings of custard.
This nursery classic is a solid, space-filling, rib-sticking pudding that’ll fill you up and fuel you for hours. Deceptively light and fluffy and often rolled like a jam roly-poly, it should also be served with lashings of custard. Oh, and stop sniggering at the back. According to one theory, the “spots” are the raisins; the “dick” is the dough, or dog, if it’s rolled.
Odds-on favorite for “best-named pudding in history,” the clootie dumpling is a spiced suet delight, studded with fruit and steamed in a cloth (or clootie). It’s a Scottish recipe similar to Christmas pudding, but lighter and with less fruit, generally served sliced and often made to mark celebrations such as birthdays and Christmas.
Sussex Pond Pudding
My personal favorite, and a source of regional pride (I’m a Sussex lass), the Sussex Pond Pudding is a suet pastry pudding with a lemon, called a “frog,” at its center. As the pudding steams, the lemon releases its juices, and when the pudding is cut, a fragrant, tartly sweet lake of buttery sauce pools out. It's truly the queen of puddings.
And if the Sussex Pond Pudding is the queen, this magnificent double-steamed beast is most certainly the king. Packed with more fruit and nuts than a shop full of Whole Foods hippies, it’s rich, dark and strongly flavored as it’s allowed to mature before its final steaming. They’re traditionally made on Stir Up Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent) but some swear they’re best when allowed to mature for years.
As a vital part of a British Christmas lunch, a proper Christmas pud should be crowned with holly, doused in brandy and set on fire, borne into the dining room by a triumphant cook. My mother sloshes on the brandy with great enthusiasm – so far no lost eyebrows.
You’ll likely only manage a small portion, but don’t worry about leftovers. My Scottish mother-in-law remembers her grandmother and great-aunt frying slices of Christmas pudding in butter and lemon juice on Boxing Day. And if that doesn’t clog your arteries warm the cockles of your heart, I don’t know what will.
Previously - A quest for Christmas pudding (with a recipe) and 5@5 – What you don't know about British food
I am glad you ran this piece. People here in the U.S. sometimes get the idea that the British are just like us. Read this and re-think your position. And wow wont they ever stop driving on the wrong side of the road. That is freaking terrifying.
I can't get enough spotted dick in my mouth.
Seriously people, grow up! Brits laugh at Americans sitting on their fannies (definitely means something different over there). These are wonderful deserts for cold winter months, especially with lashings of hot custard. Good article.
I tell you what, I'm not eating something called 'spotted dick', and i don't care if you show me the list of ingredients and it turns out there is no actual spotted dick in 'spotted dick'. I'll be eating it and thinking all along that there could be, therefore it is off my list of things to eat.
Apple pie made with lard in the crust instead of butter is amazing. Not sure why cooking with lard is odd at all.
Ha! You guys are funny ... but seriously, I prefer my spotted dick in the can :)
That's what she said.
A spotted dick in the bush is worth two in the can.
If you have spotted dick, GO SEE THE DOCTTTOOOOOORRRRRR!!!!!!
The title's misleading. I thought they were talking about Michael Jackson.
My spotted dick moves silently through the grass, careful not to alarm its prey.
Seriously……………..I am a sophisticated eater and a first generation American. My bloodline (and cuisine exposure) is French, Italian, Spain and England).
Spotted Dick and Treacle is really disgusting stuff. There is no camouflaging its taste. Sad to say, most English cuisine is not that great.
According to Craig Ferguson, most Scottish food is based on a dare. ;)
Quebec...Land of English cuisine and French charm.
i believe it's a crime against humanity to say "British/English" and "Cuisine" in the same sentence. Although Ireland isn't too far off, they once asked me if I'd like a potato with my lasagna...
How do you camouflage spotted dick ? Sounds like the camouflage is already built in. Tough to spot on the well dressed holiday table.
I like ALL kind of dick. Spotted, striped, dark or light, cut or uncut it just has to be properly wrapped!
Do you like Cheney kind of dick ?
Well, I guess some dick is too rotten to use.
Excellent! I was raised on Yorkshire pudding during holidays and became interested in more sophisticated puddings. I am always on the look-out for new ones, sometimes even passing on the recipes to Brits. My favorite has fresh rosemary from the garden, currants, nutmeg, cloves & cinnamon.
Patrick O'Brien's books include descriptions of spotted dick and several other puddings.
Seriously though, I think they wrote "dick" instead of "duck" as a way to get attention for the article.
that is the name of the dessert; spotted dick.
Spotted dick is usually served with smelly poosey.
if you haven't spotted dick you just weren't looking hard enough! happy holidays!
is this like a blotchy Johnson.............
Now THAT was funny!
I HAVE A LARGE SPOTTED DICK HANGING BY THE FIREPLACE FOR MRS SANTA CLAUSE SHE GETS A NEW ONE EVERY YEAR
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