A good steamed pudding is a truly delightful (and delicious) conundrum. On the one hand they possess no high-falutin' pretense like some other fancy desserts. They are undeniably humble, to the point of being workmanlike in their simplicity. Yet, on the other hand when they are well made, the finesse they exude can pack a deceptive punch. Velvety smooth, melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of warm and sweet heavenly cake, all topped off with an oozing, intense, even sweeter crown - in this case, currants soaked in maple syrup. Sure, steamed puddings may have humble origins, but when handled with care, they can scale lofty heights to grace the table of even the most swank occasion.

A few years back I enjoyed a very special meal at a restaurant run by dear friends of mine. To finish, I ordered the steamed blueberry pudding. I remember this was the first time I "got" steamed puddings - understood just how sublime they could be. You see, up until then I only had childhood memories of stodgy, heavy steamed puddings, but this blueberry number was a genuine revelation. It was everything my memories were not - light, airy and seductively silky. The topping was a shocking contrast of deep blue, sweet and sticky blueberry goo bubbling down the sides of the pudding. The only accompaniment it needed was the one it came with. A dreamy, smooth hand-stirred custard. I simply had to know how they made it; so I ate up, dabbed the corners of my mouth with a napkin, then got up and demanded the recipe.

I tried the recipe a few times after that, and much to my dismay, it just never turned out as well as that night. I'm sure I still have the recipe scribbled in a just barely legible fashion in one of my cookbooks somewhere. Recently, I decided I would try again. Perhaps it was the winter chill we are currently facing that made me want to perfect that lush, warm pudding, I'm not entirely sure. I tried a recipe published by a well known Australian chef and cookbook author who now cooks to lofty acclaim in London. I have long known her recipes to be wanting - she always seems to leave an ingredient or two out, or state the wrong temperature - so I should not have been surprised when I was at first met with doughy failure. But I persevered, tinkering, and I have now made the following recipe close to half a dozen times. All this effort was worth it, as I now have the recipe I wanted all those years ago - and I can share it with you.

A brief word for my North American readers. It seems that an American pudding is something entirely different to the sweet that the British, Aussies and Kiwis, et al know and love. To try and be succinct - these puddings are basically a cake batter that is a little light on the butter. Instead of being baked, they are steamed with a sweet mixture nestling at the base - in this case maple syrup and currants, but it could just as easily be blueberries, or anything else. When they are turned over to be served, the gooey mixture that was formerly at the bottom morphs into a heavenly topping that melts down the sides of the pudding.

This recipe has huge scope for variation. Apart from the currants or the aforementioned blueberries, you could use any berries you like, or perhaps other fruit cooked slowly in a syrup beforehand - or even easier, try using a few spoonfuls of marmalade or jam. Any of these will work sensationally.



Currant topping


Start with the currant topping. Place all the topping ingredients into a small saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then set aside to soak for a while. If the mixture is very dense, like jam - add a little more water. The mix should be a runny, sticky liquid, but not at all watery.

Now move onto the puddings. Preheat your oven to 180° C (360° F). Separate the eggs, keeping the whites to one side. Place the yolks into a bowl along with the sugar. Beat very thoroughly until they are fluffy and pale. While it is possible to do this with a hand held whisk, I would advise using a mix master if at all possible - it can be a lot of hard work to whisk by hand. Stir in the butter and milk until well combined. Then stir through one quarter of the currant mixture.

Pay very close attention to the next step, as it will mean the difference between success and failure. Tip the sifted flour and baking powder into the mixture, and using a spatula, lightly - very, very lightly fold the flour into the batter. The more gentle you are with this step, the lighter your puddings will be. Conversely, if you work the mixture too much at this stage the puddings will be tough and rubbery.

Place the reserved egg whites into a clean bowl and whisk to stiff peaks. Gently fold 1/3 of the whites through the batter to lighten it, then - again gently - fold through the remaining whites. It is better to leave the whites slightly separate, rather than overworking the mixture by fully working the whites into a smooth batter.

Have ready 8 x 180 - 200 ml dariole molds or ramekins that you have greased well with butter. Divide the currant mixture between the molds, then top with the pudding batter - filling them up to 3/4 of the sides of the molds.

Select a deep baking pan. Place a kitchen towel in the base of the pan to hold the puddings steady as they cook. Place the puddings in the pan, then pour hot water into the pan til it comes 3/4 the way up the sides of the pudding molds. Cover the entire pan with aluminium foil and place in the oven. Cook for 25 minutes at 180° C, then turn the pan around and cook for a further 25 minutes. Spinning the puddings around like this ensures that they cook evenly - alleviating any hot spots in your oven.

Remove the puddings and allow them to cool in the pan for 6 or 7 minutes before serving. To serve, run a small, sharp knife around the inside of the molds, then tap the puddings out onto waiting plates. Test one pudding first. If it is still slightly wet, then your oven wasn't hot enough and the puddings will need to be returned to the oven for another 15 minutes or so. Pair with softly whipped cream or a nice, smooth stirred custard - like this one.

If you need to prepare these puddings in advance, they can be wrapped and left in the fridge for 3 or 4 days. When ready to serve, unwrap and steam the puddings over boiling water for 15 minutes. Do not reheat them in the microwave, as this will turn them into a hard, steely version of their former selves. At a pinch, if you don't have a steamer basket, cover the puddings individually with foil and place in a 180° C oven for 11-12 minutes.

Update 20/07/04

In the back of my mind, I had always envisioned using buttermilk here, but none was to be had when I was first devising this pudding. Buttermilk bakes sensationally – the acidity not only gives a wonderfully subtle tang to the finished result, but these very same acids also play quite nicely indeed with any rising agents – such as the self-raising flour and baking powder used here.

Last night I made this pudding replacing the milk with buttermilk. The results were nothing short of astonishing. Where was once a pudding of delicious and warming integrity is now a near-ethereal experience. Put it this way – these buttermilk-enhanced puddings are now so stunningly light, pay heed that they don't float away as you carry them to the table. If you can find buttermilk, I urge you to use it here.

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